2018 NHRA TOYOTA NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
NHRA LAS VEGAS - SUNDAY NOTEBOOK
TENACIOUS TORRENCE COMPLETES MISSION, CLAIMS TOP FUEL CROWN AND RACE TROPHY - Steve Torrence is a stubborn, ditch-digging, pipe-laying, and self-described “loose-lipped” Texan who was so determined that he would not allow the NHRA Top Fuel championship to slip away from him like he did on the final day of last season that he went on a merciless tear, crushing all of his competition in the Countdown.
The Capco Contractors Dragster driver used a 3.751-second, 326.32-mph 1,000-foot pass to win Sunday’s Toyota Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway about an hour after he had clinched that title that had eluded him less than a year ago.
With steely precision, Torrence extended his elimination-win streak to 20 rounds, sweeping five of the first six playoff races in unprecedented fashion to assure his team at least a $500,000 reward.
All that’s left for him to conquer is the Nov. 8-11 NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, Calif. And he said he wants to keep his foot on the gas for that, too.
“Nobody has ever done this,” he said of his unpitying march to the title. It occurred to him Saturday night, he said, that “At this point it’s not about winning the championship anymore. Every round we go is history. You don’t get an opportunity very often to make history.”
Richie Crampton, whose daily job is building cars at Morgan Lucas Racing, gave Torrence a quick, fast, and cooperative Capco Contractors Dragster this year. And during their semifinal match-up Sunday, he gave Torrence another precious gift: a tire-smoking mess in the opposite lane, allowing Torrence to finish his mission. Then in the final round Sunday, he sped away easily from Leah Pritchett, whose sputtering start also was symbolic of every Top Fuel racer who has tried to corral the Kilgore, Texas, native in his quest for satisfaction.
“It’s truly a blessing to accomplish what we’ve done. It’s nothing less than a miracle,” Torrence said. “It’s a lot of hard work. These Capco boys put in a lot of hours – more than what they should. But it’s difficult to beat people with heart.”
FOX Sports commentator Amanda Busick presented him after the semifinal victory the championship trophy that was nearly as tall as the 5-foot-8 firecracker from Kilgore, Texas. Referring to some of the physical setbacks in his 35 years, she told him, “You are standing in front of a trophy that cancer can’t take from you, that a heart attack can’t take from you . . .” Emotional but trying to remain stoic, he quipped, “There you go with Barbara Walters.”
Choking back tears, Torrence said, “This is a lifelong goal. All the glory goes to God and my mom and dad because without them, none of this would have been possible – and these Capco boys, because they put their hearts into it – and it’s difficult to beat people with heart.”
“This is unreal,” he said. Then Torrence delivered a message to those who told him an independent team had no chance to contend for a championship against the multi-car operations: “All the people who said we couldn’t do it . . . Hell, we’re here! I don’t know how we got here, but the Good Lord said we was goin’!”
Torrence shared the winners circle with JR Todd (Funny Car), Bo Butner (Pro Stock), and Hector Arana Jr. (Pro Stock Motorcycle).
Three-time Top Fuel champion Antron Brown met Torrence when he jumped from his dragster at the top end of the track and cradled him in a long hug to celebrate Torrence becoming the NHRA’s 30th Top Fuel championship. The accomplishment salved a festering year-long wound for Torrence, who was bitterly disappointed he let last year’s honor go to Brittany Force on the final day of the season.
Looking back on his performance on and off the track last season, Torrence said, “Maybe I wasn’t ready to be the champion. I was angry last year. I had a chip on my shoulder. I had a point to prove. I wanted to win the championship on my terms and just shove it down their throats. We didn’t win the championship, but we did shove it down their throats pretty good. Maybe my attitude wasn’t right. I did a little soul-searching and re-evaluated and came back out this year. And it took a few races to get that out of my head. It took a while to look at it differently.”
(He said his team likely had that same chip on their shoulders: “They had to. I talked so much trash that I backed everybody into a corner.”)
Said Torrence, “I think we proved our point. We didn’t win the championship trophy last year, but we won twice as many races as any other race team out here. This year we’ve won 10 times. That’s five times as many as any anybody else. I don’t have anything to prove: the race car does it itself.”
He admitted, “I’m still a little loose-lipped and will say some stuff every now and then. I pretty much call it how I see it. Sometimes I just need to not be a flood and be more like a river and keep them words in the banks and not let ‘em get out.”
In the shadow of glitzy Las Vegas, where millions take a gamble on life, Torrence called it like he saw it, drove it like he wanted it, and hit a jackpot Sunday. Susan Wade
TODD WINS FUNNY CAR AT VEGAS, TAKES OVER POINTS LEAD - As good as nitro Funny Car driver Robert Hight had been in the first four races of NHRA’s Countdown to the Championship, J.R. Todd wouldn’t go away.
The talented Todd continued to battle and when he won the Toyota Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway Sunday he took over the points lead with just one race remaining this season at Pomona, Calif. (Nov. 8-11).
Todd captured the coveted top spot in the points standings by beating Matt Hagan in the final round.
Todd, who pilots the DHL Toyota for Kalitta Motorsports, clocked a 3.921-second elapsed time at 318.39 to defeat Hagan’s 4.087-second lap at 263.62 mph.
Todd came into Sunday trailing reigning world champion Robert Hight in the points chase by a mere six points. He gained the lead by winning in Vegas and having Hight get upset in the first round by Shawn Langdon, his Kalitta Motorsports teammate.
Todd leads Hight by 74 points going into the season-finale in Pomona. Todd has never won an NHRA world championship.
“We still have some unfinished business in Pomona,” Todd said. “Hopefully we can go there and come out of there with two trophies. For me, it comes with being comfortable in the car. I’m at that point now that I just go up there and focus on my reaction times and driving that thing straight down the track. I know those guys (his crew) are going to prepare and awesome car and Todd (Smith) and Jon O (Oberhofer) (his crew chiefs) are doing an awesome job with the tune-up and picking away at it. It was pretty cool, we had Del Worsham there this weekend with the Global team (with driver Langdon), and having him around just brings back all those memories of 2015.
It is awesome having him there helping us out and this was a dream weekend. I would much rather have a 74-point lead (going into Pomona) than an eight-point lead. Points and a half at Pomona are going to make things interesting so we just need to maintain what we have been doing going to the later rounds.”
Worsham won a nitro Funny Car world championship in 2015 while piloting the DHL Funny Car for Kalitta Motorsports.
This is Todd’s fifth win this season and 16th of his career. Todd now has seven career NHRA national event Funny Car wins. Todd’s other nine national event victories came in Top Fuel.
“It started out (Friday), when we didn’t have a good day at all,” Todd said. “We qualified 16th and then right before we ran in Q3 we were bumped out of the show. It was aggressive in Q3 and it ran (3)91 and we ended up qualifying second. That just goes to show how hard those guys work. We had some fuel system issues, they stayed late and changed the entire fuel system and started the car up and rallied back Saturday and made two good runs. (Sunday), they were pretty much flawless. It is so awesome to be able to drive a car like that when it is that consistent and you don’t have to worry about whether you’re going to have to go out there and pedal it or things like that. You just go up there and smack the tree as hard as you can and try to keep that thing stuck in the groove.”
Todd has won this season in Las Vegas twice, once in the spring and now in the fall, Houston, Indianapolis and Reading, Pa.
“We knew going into Indy we had our Hot Rod back, and it showed,” Todd said. “We ran good there in qualifying and on race day and we really haven’t let up since then. It is all about being consistent and we are racing smart. We not overthinking or overdoing things. I feel the way we ran here (in Las Vegas) in the spring gave the guys some good notes to fall back on. You have to give credit to the track. The way they re-did the lanes here, it’s nice and smooth and I knew coming back here in the fall the lanes would probably be even better than they were in the spring time and they were. It is awesome to be able to sweep (Las Vegas). I wasn’t a big fan of the Four-Wide and coming here to win the Toyota Nationals in front of some big dogs who were here this weekend is pretty awesome.”
Since Indy, Todd has a 20-3 elimination round record since Indy.
Todd’s victory parade Sunday consisted of wins over Robert Townsend, teammate Shawn Langdon, Jack Beckman and then Hagan.
“When we saw the ladder (Saturday night), we thought this was would be huge if Shawn and those Global Electronic Technology guys could take him (Hight) out (in the first round) and sure enough they did,” Todd said. “They made a H*ll of a run, that 3.92. Hats off to them for stepping up and they have been struggling during the Countdown. They have a good car and our cars are set up similar and they just have not been getting the breaks they need. It was nice for them to do that and help us out along the way.
We had not been getting much help up until this point with people racing Robert. They have the No. 1 on the side for a reason because they are good. You can ask any crew chief in the Funny Car class ‘Who is the man?’ and they will say Jimmy Prock (Hight’s crew chief). The drivers would say Robert is because they are clutch. It’s not over yet. We still have a lot of work to do in Pomona, but we have to keep after it and not let up. I’m not going to change the way I drive. I don’t think Jon O and Todd are going to change the way they are running the car either. We will be out here (in Las Vegas) testing (Monday) and we will try some things and maybe learn from that and go into Pomona. We need to keep making consistent runs the way we have been and step one is getting qualified there in Pomona, hopefully, in the top half and take it one round at a time.” Tracy Renck
BUTNER CLAIMS PRO STOCK TITLE IN LAS VEGAS - Bo Butner, the reigning NHRA Pro Stock world champion, announced prior to the Toyota Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway he was stepping away from the class next season and returning to his Sportsman racing roots.
Butner didn’t lose any of his competitiveness in the Pro Stock ranks as he won the Wally at The Strip Sunday thanks to holeshot in the final round.
Butner clocked a 6.557-second elapsed time at 207.43 mph to defeat a quicker Erica Enders who came in at 6.652 seconds at 206.57 mph.
The difference was at the starting line.
Butner had an .007 reaction time, compared to Enders’ .020 reaction time.
“I’m very happy we got to win again,” Butner said. “This Pro Stick deal is amazing. Any of the top 12 qualifiers can win. It is tough, and the competition is great. That’s what brought me to this class and I would like to say thank you to everybody. It has been a long time since I’ve been up here (having winner’s press conference). It was a great victory, but I’m still going to Pomona to try and win that race. I went up there (in the finals) with the mindset to slow down, do not rush, enjoy it, hey this might be your last Vegas race. Enjoy this deal and give it the best you have got.”
Butner’s victory binge consisted of wins over Alex Laughlin, Jason Line, Matt Hartford and then Enders.
“I’m a Sportsman person’s dream,” Butner said. “I’m living the dream. We started at the bottom and worked our way up and to be able to run up here against these people who I watched on TV forever and be with them and to be able to compete with them has been amazing. I’m not ending my career at all. I might run in Pro Stock again in the future. I’m focused on doing something different. We have a family business just like Steve (Torrence) and we are going to grow that thing. I have my first grand kid coming in April, and I’m very pumped for that and they were here for the win and that was great. It is very hard (to leave Pro Stock), but I let them (his fans) know I’m not going anywhere. You will still see me here. The fans who keep coming up blow me away. I’m a Stocker, Super Stock guy forever, since 1990. The Lord has blessed us all and our family and I’m very, very thankful for what the fans have done for us.”
Butner, who pilots the KB Racing-powered Jim Butner Auto Chevrolet Camaro, improved to 10-8 in elimination rounds against Enders and is 2-1 against her in final rounds.
This was Butner’s seventh career NHRA national event Pro Stock win in 20 career final rounds. Butner, who has two wins this season, is eighth in the season points with just one race left in Pomona, Calif. (Nov. 8-11). Tanner Gray is the points leader. He has a 140-point lead over Jeg Coughlin.
“We started like gangbusters, winning Pomona (the Winternationals) and we ran good at Gainesville (Fla.), and thought we may have another repeat (world championship) deal coming,” Butner said. “We struggled a little bit as every team does and I kept saying this is perfect. We needed to go back and find that old car and they absolutely did. We showed improvement in every run and I’m looking forward to my last Pro Stock race in Pomona.” Tracy Renck
ARANA JR. KEEPS CHAMPIONSHIP HOPES ALIVE, STAYS IN TOP FOUR IN PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE - Hector Arana Jr. started the season in 10th place and immediately dropped to 13th place.
But he has improved steadily, and with Sunday’s Pro Stock Motorcycle victory at the Toyota Nationals at Las Vegas from the top qualifying position, he has pulled to within 64 points of leader Matt Smith.
Arana Jr. still is in fourth place, with L.E. Tonglet and his Sunday runner-up, Eddie Krawiec, also trying to maximize their shots at the 191 points available at the Nov. 8-10 season finale at Pomona, Calif.
The turnaround was especially sweet, for Arana had lost in the first round at the previous three Countdown races – at St. Louis, Dallas, and Charlotte.
“You know what? After I lost first round three times in a row, I stopped even thinking about the points,” Arana Jr. said. “I don’t even know where I fell back to – I know pretty low.”
He had slipped to sixth place but is back in fourth place – just where he started the playoffs – thanks to his winning 6.885-second elapsed time on the Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway quarter-mile (at 193.35 mph).
Krawiec was faster at 195.05 mph on his Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson Street Rod, but his E.T. was lacking at 6.911 seconds. He still is second in the standings, a mere four points behind Smith.
Arana Jr. said, “We regrouped. I said, ‘I don’t care what the points are. I don’t even know what the points are. We just need to start winning again. We need to get the bike back to where it was, consistent.’
“We thought outside the box,” he said, “and went in a totally different direction for both mine and my father’s bike. I think we’re definitely onto something. It proved itself this weekend on the racing surface. We went testing and we thought we had everything figured out. Then when we came to the NHRA track prep, it’s just different. So we were still lost, but we’ve got it figured out now.”
Arana Jr. advanced to the final past Mark Paquette, Matt Smith, and Andrew Hines. Smith helped him by fouling by .015 of a second.
Joining him in the winners circle were newly crowned Top Fuel king Steve Torrence, new Funny Car points leader JR Todd, and current Pro Stock champion Bo Butner.
He said he’s looking forward to the season finale in two weeks at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.
“We just want to qualify well and go rounds and win races,” Arana Jr. said.
And Sunday he did all those things. Susan Wade
NHRA LAS VEGAS – SATURDAY NOTEBOOK
BUTNER ADDS TO PRO STOCK EXODUS, DRIVERS REACT TO LATEST CHANGE IN PRO STOCK, DRAG RACING PLAYS SIZEABLE PART OF NEW STARDUST RACEWAY BOOK, ANGELLE BUSY SINCE 2014 LAS VEGAS ACCIDENT
BUTNER TO LEAVE PRO STOCK – The ‘Wow!” factor just isn’t enough for reigning NHRA Pro Stock champion Bo Butner.
As expected for the past few days, the one-time Competition Eliminator champion and multi-time division champion officially announed Saturday he will not return to the Pro Stock class next season.
However, Butner will not be idle. He has committed to race a Cobra Jet Mustang for the full schedule of the SAM Tech Factory Stock Showdown. That’s the increasingly popular series featuring heads-up competition between factory-built Chevrolet COPO Camaros, Dodge Challenger Drag Paks, and Ford Cobra Jets. Racers vie for points, national-event victories, and a championship.
The Floyds Knobs, Ind., car dealer said he might try the rigorous and ruthless world of Pro Modified. He earned his Pro Mod license earlier this season in Harry Hruska's turbocharged Chevy Camaro.
He’ll turn to Chevy again, with the Cobalt he drove to the 2006 Comp Eliminator championship, when he tests the no prep drag racing scene. That style of drag racing evolved from street-racing roots and has picked up a wave of fans with flashy, in-your-face names such as No Mercy and Lights Out and sanctioning bodies as Dirty South No Prep Series.
"My no prep car is being put together as we speak, and I'm going to try that and see if I like it," Butner said this weekend from The Strip at Ls Vegas Motor Speedway.
"There are a whole lot of options now, and I won't have to race – I can race when I want to race. I'm probably stepping away from Pro Stock for at least a year,” he said, “because I have a lot of life-changing things happening. I'm going to be a grandpa in April, and I've put off a lot of family stuff for the last four seasons. I want to get back to that, plus, our business is growing, and I need to be there for that."
He said, "I'm still feeling the 'wow factor' after winning a Pro Stock championship. I'm still living in that. I'm a Sportsman racer, and after working your way up the ranks and racing in every class in the world, it's really awesome to hit your goal. That's one of the key reasons I'm ready for something else. We achieved the goal. What's next?"
Butner earned 21 national-event victories in a total of five categories. But he insisted that he still loves Pro Stock and his KB / Summit Racing team.
"If I come back to Pro Stock, it will only be with KB Racing, no other team," he said. "I couldn't be paid to go race somewhere else. I'm loyal to these guys because they've been very loyal to me, especially the team owners Ken and Judy Black. When I discussed this with them, they told me that I'd always have a home here. That makes me feel really good."
During his time with KB Racing, Butner has won six times in 19 final-round appearances and has led the field eight times.
"I don't want to hurt Pro Stock, and I hope it grows even bigger. And I want everyone to know that I'm not going away," he said. "I'm amazed by the support that we've had and the following that has grown. It's unlike anything I'm used to, but it's great. These are the best fans in the world. Pro Stock is a Stock and Super Stock Sportsman racer's dream. It's the ultimate class to race and absolutely the toughest to turn on a win light. Day One, Jason [Line] told me that, and I thought, 'No, I got this.' But he was 100-percent correct. It's hard to win, and you feel great just to win a round."
Butner said he was humbled throughout his time in Pro Stock and overwhelmed by the support across the country – but also at home.
"I want to thank my fiancé, Randi Lyn Shipp, and everyone who has worked on our crew and been there for us through thick and thin: Darrel Herron, Greg Esarey, Davey Allison, Scott Waterhouse, Tyler Hogan, Cody Anderson, and of course Jack Line. Every guy or girl who has helped us, thank you, and that includes Greg [Anderson], Jason [Line], and all the guys who are part of the KB Racing team. To Ken and Judy Black who took me in like a son, thank you.
"I have to thank my employees at Jim Butner Auto Group – they're all my family and friends – for putting up with the lack of inventory at times and really sticking by me. They root for me, and they made it possible for me to go Pro Stock racing. I'm excited to get back with them and get more involved. Our customers have been great, so supportive and always ready to tell me when I need to hit the Tree invest a big pedestal that lights up? People come in and take pictures with it, and that's been a lot of fun for us. I have to say, this sport is a lot bigger than I ever realized. I'm proud to be part of it."
Butner’s exit from Pro Stock at the end of the Pomona season finale in two weeks marks the latest defection. Tanner Gray will race in NASCAR, returning to his circle-track roots. Drew Skillman has pulled out to go back to sportsman racing. John Gaydosh left frustrated because he said the lack of TV coverage for the Pro Stock class made it difficult to attract sponsors. Chris McGaha said he’ll cut about five races off his schedule. (That was before he discovered the NHRA is planning to cut back the number of Pro Stock races.)
But some others are entering the class, for at least a few races, including Fernando Cuadra’s son and current Pro Stock Motorcycle racer Matt Smith.
Cuadra told Competition Plus’ Tracy Renck last month at Indianapolis, “Both of us are going to be racing,” Fernando Sr. said. “Hopefully, I will see them in one of the eliminations, father and son.” Furthermore, he stuck up for the class and said this is the perfect time to invest in it. “This is the proper time,” he said. “All the controversy with Pro Stock this and that, this is the proper time. There is a good saying in cowboy business: ‘Never waste a good recession.’ I put a little in my business when everybody is pulling out thinking that this is not going anywhere. This is the right time to get in, especially with the support of KB people, they are first class.”
AS THE PRO STOCK WHEEL TURNS - NHRA distributed a letter to their Pro Stock teams Friday afternoon between qualifying sessions at the NHRA Toyota Nationals insinuating their intentions to scale their 24-races down to 16. The sanctioning body is awaiting feedback from the teams before making the move official, which management says this reduced schedule is not a done deal.
“We did send a letter to teams, but an official decision and announcement has not been made," NHRA President Glen Cromwell confirmed.
Initially, NHRA officials presented to the Professional Racers Organization [PRO] a proposal which suggested a reduced purse for a 24-race schedule in 2019 and paring down the schedule to just 16 races in 2020.
The letter, penned by incoming NHRA Vice President of Operations Josh Peterson, reportedly revealed the purse would remain the same for the 2019 season with lesser races.
NHRA also could consider reducing the fields to eight-cars in 2019 or later should the fields not attract 16-cars.
A source close to the situation has suggested NHRA is mulling a scenario similar to Pro Stock Motorcycle and the Mickey Thompson Top Fuel Harley-Davidson dynamic where the 500-inch cars could race 16 events while the recently exhibited Mountain Motor Pro Stock cars could run six to eight events. - Bobby Bennett
WHAT THEY THINK - NHRA Pro Stock teams reacted to the memo distributed on Friday, as they rolled their cars out of the trailer for Saturday's final qualifying sessions.
In a letter penned by incoming NHRA VP of Operations Josh Peterson, those teams were informed their 24-race schedule would be pared to 16 in 2019. The sanctioning body is awaiting feedback from the teams before making the move official, which management says is not a done deal.
Matt Hartford is one of those part-time NHRA Pro Stock racers hoping the new normal could make him a full-time racer.
"For a guy like me who only runs sixteen races a year, I love it because now I have a chance to race for a championship," Hartford said. "If they had made it 24 races and cut the pay, I wouldn't have run at all."
Standing alongside Hartford, Vincent Nobile could only smile.
Nobile and team owner Nick Mitsos have for the last few seasons flirted with the idea of running a part-time schedule. If the reduced schedule becomes reality, there will be no more hinting at sitting out races.
"For someone like me, who doesn't only drag race, it's great," Nobile said. "I have three jobs at home. For some of the guys out here, all they do is drag race. It makes it a lot easier."
Richard Freeman has always been in favor of the smaller race schedule, and with the letter is excited about next season and what he expects to be a reinvigorated factory hot division.
"I think it is going to be great," Freeman said. "I think it needed to be done a long time ago. I'm not sure on the race count, but you've got to start somewhere. I would have preferred 18, but that's what [NHRA] wanted to do, and we will embrace it just like everything else.
"I think you will see an influx of participation. I think it has a lot of [Pro Stock teams] talking."
Freeman confirmed his Pro Stock customers who had not committed to running 24 races were now all-in for the 16-race schedule. Those customers include Alex Laughlin, Nobile, and Hartford, who has never run a full schedule before.
"This is [NHRA's] sandbox, and we all have to play in it," Freeman said. "I'm fired up for the 16 races for me and my group."
Not all Pro Stock racers share the enthusiasm for the 16-race schedule.
"I'm not happy about it at all," Greg Anderson said, declining an interview on the subject.
Nobile believes many of Pro Stock's critics have unfairly judged the division's shortcomings. He believes the class has been held to a higher standard than the other NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing professional divisions.
"It's not just Pro Stock that has struggled, I wish [the critics] would open their eyes," Nobile said. "I understand it's not the most exciting car to go down the track; you have to appreciate Pro Stock in order to enjoy it. It takes a whole lot of time, research and development to get these cars to go as fast as they go.
"We do make it down the track 99-percent of the time, and I understand the fans like to see wild and crazy things. That's not what Pro Stock is all about. It's about making the most of the little bit we have. We don't have 10,000 horsepower, so we make the most we have out of a little bit." - Bobby Bennett
STARDUST RACEWAY BOOK INTRIGUES – Anyone who assumes Bruton Smith’s gleaming multipurpose Las Vegas Motor Speedway represents the desert oasis’ first dice-roll on auto racing needs to pick up a copy of Randy Cannon’s newly published book, “Stardust International Raceway: Motorsports Meets The Mob in Vegas, 1965 – 1971.”
Meticulously researched and documented, this treasure trove of civic history is far more than a chronicle of the sports-car, open-wheel, stock-car, and drag-racing spectacles in the 1950s and ‘60s. Certainly it’s a thorough account of the L-shaped 480-acre property wedged between Flamingo Road and Tropicana Avenue to the north and south and Rainbow and Piedmont boulevards on the west and east. It’s complete with performance details of the most respected and cherished names in motorsports, and on the flip side, a litany of America’s known and suspected organized-crime figures from coast to coast.
It’s a true tale spun through E.T. slips and timing sheets scattered among land- and corporation-deal documents, court papers, and a trail of paperwork that courses through some serious connections among the Teamsters, FBI, the growing Las Vegas casino scene, the Securities and Exchange Commission, Hollywood, Corporate America, and the U.S. Congress. Wiretapping, Watergate, surveillance, racketeers, indictments, and murder aren’t words normally associated with auto-racing books. But Cannon uncovers saints and sinners, high rollers and low-lifes, smooth talkers and rough customers, fast racers and folks just trying to pull a fast one. But rising as the redeeming, reassuring stabilizer in the swirl of waywardness are the racers who ultimately were the stars at Stardust. (Susan Wade photo)
ANGELLE’S LIFE ACTIVE – A lot has happened to three-time Pro Stock Motorcycle champion Angelle Sampey since this Halloween weekend at Las Vegas in 2014. That’s when her return to the racetrack came to a gruesomely abrupt halt: she suffered a severely lacerated Achilles tendon and two others in her left leg as he helped unload the bike that Friday.
She said this Friday that she had shoved that incident to the back of her mind,“ but the medic cart just passed a little while ago, and I saw it and I literally got a sick feeling and I went, ‘Uh-‘ I think about safety. I think about things now, stupid little things you don’t think you can hurt yourself with. I don’t help with the set-up [of the pit], and sometimes I feel bad, because I used to help all the time. But that’s how I got hurt.” She relented last year and was trying to put her motorcycle on the trailer when, she said, “my foot got caught on something and they were pushing the bike and the peg pushed against my Achilles real hard.” She shuddered. She said, “I didn’t think rolling the bike with me sitting on it on the ramp would be dangerous. And just that little thing right there, I almost busted it again.”
By last fall, she had settled into her manager role with Cory Reed’s Team Liberty Racing. And they’re forging ahead, with additional engine-building help from Larry Morgan and his son, Nick, this year.
On the home front, she and husband Seth Drago have been foster parents for the past two years to a little girl, now age 4, who joins big sister Ava Jane, 7. They are in the legal process of acquiring full parental rights. The pending court decision (along with Ava Jane’s recovery from a brief bout of respiratory illness that has the former nurse calling home every half-hour) has her distracted a bit this weekend.
“I can’t stand the waiting, but I don’t have a choice,” Sampey said of the adoption process. When she receives news from the judge and it’s positive, she said she plans to announce it via social media: “If you see a post that says, ‘My prayers have been answered,’ she’s staying with us.”
Moreover, Sampey took up a challenge from her husband following her 48th birthday in August. She had been critical of her own appearance, so he dared her to do something about it by setting up a course with Total Nutrition Technology and a personal trainer. She has chiseled herself into a figure that would be enviable by women half her age. She also she said she’s proud of “eating clean,” a true accomplishment for someone who travels so much and is constantly on the go.
As the No. 11 qualifier, Sampey will line up in the first round of runoffs Sunday against No. 6 Angie Smith.
TONGLET’S FUTURE STILL UP IN AIR – A couple of years ago, Pro Stock Motorcycle contender L.E. Tonglet mentioned that he might like to give the Pro Stock class or the Pro Mod class a try: “I’m not saying that I could do it, but I’d like to give it a shot.” (Aside from a couple of Jr. Dragster passes years ago, Tonglet always has raced on two wheels.) The 2010 champion and rookie of the year said this weekend, “If the opportunity came about, I would definitely try. But its not something that I’m going to pursue very hard, because all of our stuff’s invested in Pro Stock Motorcycle. We’re going to stick with this unless Kenny [NitroFish sponsor Koretsky] buys a whole operation for me to drive. You never know.”
He said his 2019 plans aren’t firm yet. The plan was to visit with Koretsky this weekend to determine what direction to go, but Koretsky had a scheduling conflict, postponing their conversation until the NHRA reconvenes at Pomona, Calif., in two weeks. “We’re still hoping to do this again. It’s all up to him if we’re able to team up with Jerry [Savoie, White Alligator Racing team owner] again.”
He said Savoie has decided to compete at only five races or so next season and rent his bike to another, yet-unnamed rider. Savoie will race with a newly built motorcycle.
In the meantime, Tonglet has other matters to consider. He and wife Kayla are expecting baby Brody to arrive any day now.
In the meantime, he is thinking about meeting his chief rival, Matt Smith, in the opening round of eliminations Sunday. Both surprisingly were mid-pack qualifiers, Smith eighth and Tonglet ninth, setting up the showdown between the top two seeded racers with a single event to go in the year.
DENSHAM EXPLAINS UNIQUE NATURE OF HOT ROD REUNION – Gary Densham spent last weekend helping son Steven Densham capture the Nostalgia Funny Car top qualifying position at the California Hot Rod Reunion (CHRR). And he said that “Oh, heck yes,” he had fun: “It’s a ball. It’s a hoot. Everybody’s there and has a great time.
“And to be honest with you,” Densham said (referring to the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series with his special description), “as much as I love the big-show racing, if I wanted to introduce someone into drag racing, I’d probably take them to the March Meet or the Reunion.
“Don’t get me wrong . . . The big-show deal is phenomenal . . . the power, the speed, the noise, the fire, the flames. Everything about it is unbelievable and sensory overload,” he said. “But basically, you got 16 dragsters that outside of decals look exactly the same. Because of the rules, they have to. They have to be 300-inches long, they have to have a certain height wing and all that stuff. Yeah, maybe one has a canopy and one doesn’t, but the average spectator might not even notice that. Then you got 16 or 18 Funny Cars that, if you really know what you’re looking for, you might be able to identify a Ford or a Toyota or a Dodge or Chevy – but that’s pretty tough. They’re all kind of molded into the same group, and once again that all has to do with rules and that’s the way it should be.
“But you go out to the nostalgia races, I can tell the difference between a ‘69 Mustang and a ‘69 Camaro or a Dodge Dart or a Challenger because they look like the car that was there at the time. And it means that there’s no real need because there’s no big sponsors, all the cars are cool with names and they’re painted up pretty. They’re not just rolling billboards. Then the great thing is on the big-show car, you get done watching Top Fuel and Funny Car, 16 Camaros that call themselves Pro Stock, once again no diversity there – which I can’t believe NHRA has allowed to happen. Look what they did in motorcycle. Suzuki dominated so badly, and yet they were smart enough to look up in the grandstands and say, “Most of those guys up there ride Harley-Davidsons”. So they handicapped them enough to make them competitive and now they had to knock them back a little bit. But now you’ve got four manufacturers of motorcycles out there and it’s really exciting, instead of one manufacturer, like Pro Stock. Anyway, then you watch 16 Pro Stocks that all look exactly the same because they’re all Camaros. Then you look at 100 super comp that are exactly the same, they’re a small-block or a big-block rear-engine dragster. Once again those are pretty and neat and all that stuff, and every one of them runs 9.90 or 10.90 or whatever it is supposed to right on the money.
“But you go to the reunion all of a sudden you got Willys, Anglias, and wheel stands and this and that and Green Mambas and things that were our heritage that have been restored and are still running in some cases. There’s such a potpourri of different cars. Plus you got the area where the show cars are. You got the swap meet. You’ve got so many different things a car enthusiast can look at instead of the same thing over and over. I’m not putting the big-show car down, because you’re never going to see that kind of performance out of anything that we have but there’s just so many things to do at the nostalgia races.”
Another experienced nitro Funny Car driver, Jeff Arend, qualified fourth in his Firebird at the California Hot Rod Reunion this past weekend at Bakersfield. He faced No. 13 Cory Lee, in a Challenger, in the first round of Nostalgia Funny Car eliminations and defeated Lee in the Saturday night showdown. In the Sunday quarterfinal, Arend beat Brad Thompson before falling to eventual runner-up Rian Konno in the semifinal. This weekend he’s driving the Monte Carlo that Australians Peter and Helen Russo own, the one in which he made his 2018 debut here in April at the Las Vegas four-wide inaugural. (He missed the cut that weekend.)
Densham and Arend anchored the Funny Car field at the end of Friday’s first session here, but both dropped off the grid in the night session. Arend moved back into the starting lineup at No. 16 (giving him a first-round meeting with top qualifier Tommy Johnson Jr.). Densham joined Bob Bode and Jeff Diehl on the DNQ list.
BUDDY, CAN YOU SPARE A HAULER – OR A WEEKEND? – Lex Joon needed a lift. Terry Totten needed a crew. And the two Top Fuel drivers took to Facebook to make their cases.
Joon, the earnest European Top Fuel champion who along with wife Gerda left The Netherlands behind to embark on a path to U.S. citizenship and fulltime NHRA competition, put the word out on Facebook this past Monday that he’d compete at Las Vegas and Pomona if he could secure a reliable hauler to keep his American Dream Tour on the move before the season is over.
Joon wrote: “Just to clarify, our racing program is ready to go. We are working on our parts and equipment 24/7. We have the go-fast parts, tune-up, and driver to qualify. The distance from Brownsburg [Ind.] to The West is around 2,000 miles (3200km) one way, which might be a bit challenging for our old-school truck and trailer setup. If we can use or rent a bigger transportation setup, we are game to go.”
Totten advertised for some personnel to help him at this weekend’s NHRA Totota Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
The Nebraska racer wrote: “Well I'm gonna head to the strip and run the top fueler with almost no help. So if anyone wants to crew and play top fuel with me send me a message. Should be a challenge.”
Joon was unable to secure transportation in time to make this race, but he’s still looking to get to Pomona, Calif., in two weeks in time to race in the NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway.
But Totten was able to gather a crew of six, four of them from the Facebook call.
However, the trip here from Omaha did not go smoothly, and Totten didn’t qualify. (Neither did Terry Haddock, leaving the field with only one Terry, Terry McMillen, the No. 10 starter who will go up against No. 7 Billy Torrence.)
Totten found the positives in his wild experience.
“It went OK. It was quite a challenge, because we had Freightliner problems, too. The tow vehicle pushed some exhaust gaskets out of it in front of the turbo, so we had to basically come here and fix the truck first,” he said. “At least we got it done. We didn’t drive all the way out here and not get the car finished. That was my big fear, but the Freightliner dealer out here’s closed on Saturdays so I had to make sure my truck was done before this car was done so that I can go home. Otherwise I’d be working on it come Monday and I’m going to be back to work on Monday.”
The car wasn’t ready, either.
“We really hadn’t even taken the clutch out of it since we got done at Brainerd,” Totten said, “so we came here [and] pretty much everything needed to be done. We were lucky to get a pass out there that was clean. We threw the belt, but we didn’t hurt anything again. We had good early numbers. We just can’t keep a belt on it and get the last 350 feet. Once we do, we’ll run a good number. All of our early numbers were really awesome, the best I’ve ever had. You know, even here our 60 foot, our 330, mile per nhour, everything, it’s pulling really hard, but it just keeps letting go of the belt at about 650-700 feet.”
A glimpse of promise aside, Totten’s schedule has been a bit chaotic.
“This was kind of a last-minute deal,” he said. “I was actually wanting to go to the Pomona race, and my wife reminded me that we had a family vacation that we had purchased earlier in the year. So since I’d already committed to the NHRA to get here, I thought, ‘Well I’m just going to go ahead and go. I wanted to go to the awards banquet this year, too, but we’ll end up being on vacation somewhere else.
“We take the kids down to Missouri to Silver Dollar City in Branson every two years. They close down over Halloween, and then they open for Christmas the first of November. They’ve got Christmas lights and it’s just fun, and the kids love it. It’s like an amusement park, and there’s crafts and this and that. I guess I kind of should have looked a little bit further ahead on the calendar,” Totten said.
He indicated he plans to compete again next year in the NHRA, but he might not race in Top Fuel. Then again, he might.
“We’ve got a Funny Car we’re putting together that we’re going to be doing some racing with that. We kind of neglected [it] this year. We wanted to do more with it, but you know the NHRA had light fields. We wanted to make sure that we come out here and keep them full, you know?” Totten said.
“We go out, we get qualified, or get on with it and we can go on to the next race. That’s kind of the way it’s been working. We’ll just keep doing it as long as we can,” he said. “In all actuality, we did not plan on running nearly this many races this year. I normally run about four races a year that are real close to the heartland because costs are down and things like that. The time off and everybody that helps me are all volunteer for the most part. They all have full time jobs, so they’re spending their vacation to come and help me.
“It’s been a good year for us really. We’re really, really happy,” Totten said. “This car’s done basically really everything. We struggled at the beginning with continually putting cylinders out. The more data we got, the more runs we made that were clean. Working on the early numbers of this car, it’s all come around. We were two tenths ahead of Shawn Reed in that last one. He had gone a 3.87 and it let go just shortly after 660 feet, so it probably would have been my career best pass if the belt would have stayed on.”
MORGAN HAS NEW FOCUS – Longtime Pro Stock owner-driver Larry Morgan is elbow-deep in engines these days – Pro Stock Motorcycle motors.
He said he has no interest in returning to the Pro Stock class but would entertain a return to the intriguing and uber-competitive Pro Mod class: “If I race a car, it will be with Jim Whitley in Pro Mod.”
Morgan this year has headed the engine program for Team Liberty, working for Cory Reed and parents Jim and Annie Whiteley on the bikes that Reed, Angelle Sampey, and Joey Gladstone ride.
He said he and Jim Whiteley, who is presenting sponsor of the Pro Modified class with his J&A Service company, have discussed the possibility: “Oh yeah, we talk. He would give me something right now, and I told him that until these bikes run real fast all the time, I’m not doing it. I don’t have nothing to prove out here. I do love to race, and I love to help him, because I don’t know a better person than that guy, and I mean that. He does so much for motorsports. He’s like Forrest Lucas. I mean, he’s that type of a person. I’ve been lucky in my time to be hooked up with both of them, to be honest.”
His big objection right now is “I want these bikes to run good. I’ve got a freaking gun to my head right now with Cory’s bike. That thing’s 20 pounds heavy, and you know what 20 pounds heavy on a bike is? I got on the computer - you ever do the calculation with Wallace calculator? They do all kinds of [measurements]. [It shows] 625 pounds at 400 horse, a bike should run 6.76, 199.63, OK? I’m responsible for this, right? The 400 horsepower, right – 6.76, almost 200. Now when I add Cory on the bike, 645 pounds at 400 horsepower only runs an .83. That’s staggering. That’s seven-hundredths slower with the same power.
“The class is lopsided is what I’m getting at. They need to have, like every class, a number that is achievable,” Morgan said. “Cory, he only weighs 140-some pounds. He’d have to weigh 120 pounds. He can’t get to 120 pounds. I don’t want him to lose weight, so we’ve got to spend a lot of money, build a real, real lightweight bike. Angelle is perfect. She’s a perfect size and does a perfect job, and that’s why she runs good most of the time. She was the second-quickest bike the last race. We came here and worked on it, we tried different injectors and stuff like that, but it’s still the same engine. How easy it is to get screwed up. You remember when she had that run a couple races she didn’t qualify? Well she was like No. 19 or 21 qualifier, and then went to the next race and was No. 2 the next pass? Well, guess what - the motor was never out of the frame rails. How about that? That’s how screwed up you can get. Because these things are so light, it’s hard to do. It’s hard to get it right. See, let’s just say, like my car, my Pro Stock car when it weighed 2360 pounds, or 2370 because I’m a big boy, I was 20 pounds heavy. I was two-hundredths. The same thing on a bike is seven-hundredths. And that’s hard to realize that. I thought it’d be a couple, two- or three-hundredths. I thought I can deal with that. I can’t deal with seven-hundredths. So that’s what we’re up against.”
Performance doesn’t come in big increments, he said.
“You can’t find that much. When I [started] this deal with Jim, he was breaking three motors an event. I mean, they were blowing stuff up like no tomorrow. Jim asked me to do some heads for him. I went over and looked, and I go, ‘Jim I can do heads, but I’m going to hurt you.’ He said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘I’m going to be honest with you, I probably won’t take it. They’re not going to be ready for you.’ So he said to me, ‘Would you be interested in doing the rest of it?’ I go, ‘I’ll do it.’ I gave him a number. He said, ‘I want you do to it.’ This is what I told him: ‘I’m not going to do anything but fix it so they’re not blowing up every race.’ Knock on wood, we haven’t blown one engine up. They were blowing three up an event. He spent $60,000 a race to get them fixed.”
Reed, who took his bike back over for this race in the wake of Joey Gladstone’s freak injury a week ago, missed the field. So did Karen Stoffer, Katie Sullivan, Freddie Camarena, Anthony Vanetti, and Maurice Allen.
In the past, Morgan has helped the Lucas Oil Buell team of Hector Arana and his sons. “I’ve done Hector stuff forever,” he said. “When they went 200 [mph, at Gainesville in March], they come over and thanked me. They said, ‘It wouldn’t have happened without you.’ I said, ‘I know that.’” Hector Arana Jr. was No. 1 qualifier. He’ll race Mark Paquette when eliminations begin Sunday.
LONGSHOT SCHUMACHER STILL HOPING – No Top Fuel racer has won more times at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway than U.S. Army Dragster driver Tony Schumacher. His eight victories are divided between the spring race (2004, 2009, 2013, 2014) and this fall event known today as the Toyota Nationals (2005, 2006, 2008, 2010). Schumacher also leads the class in top-qualifying performances, with 10 overall and three at this fall race (2006-08).
Right now, all those statistics are yesterday’s news. Schumacher, realizing chances for a ninth series championship are extremely remote at this point, is aiming only to win this race.
“As slim of a chance as it might be at the moment, the reality is that we still have a shot at the championship and that’s been the goal from Day One,” he said. “It would take two perfect weekends on our part, which we know this U.S. Army team is certainly capable of pulling off, especially with the gains we’ve made the last couple of race weekends with our outright speed. But we would also need a whole lot of help, and I’m not sure if that would even be enough. It’s a huge longshot, for sure. But all we can do is control our part of it and hope for some help this weekend.
“There is no quit in this U.S. Army team, and I’ve always said we perform our best when we absolutely have to – backs against the wall in the bottom of the ninth. I’ve been part of some incredible moments with the U.S. Army team, and we’re just hoping to keep the dream alive,” Schumacher said. “We’ve had so many good weekends racing at The Strip and, despite not having the success we were aiming for so far in the Countdown, we still have the chance to do something special here at the end of the season.”
He said his success here has to do, in part with the fact “we have the opportunity to race in Las Vegas twice a year. And timing always seems to play a factor. Our spring race typically is after we’ve had a handful of races and teams have a pretty good package under them. We started the season pretty well, and the U.S. Army car was on the right track. We reach the final at two of the first four events, including Las Vegas. We qualified No. 1 and had a heck of a race in the final with Torrence. We won the spring race there in 2013 and 2014, so we’ve been good there for quite some time. In the fall, it’s the crunch time, the second-to-last race of the Countdown, and we live for those opportunities,” he said. “The U.S. Army team thrives in those high-pressure moments. We’ve proven it over the years, and I’m excited we have another shot at it this weekend. Like I said, it’s a longshot right now to win the championship, but winning this weekend is first on the agenda.”
CAPPS STILL IN FUNNY CAR CHASE – If Funny Car favorite Ron Capps winds up in the winners circle and the whole scene looks familiar, don’t worry. Capps has won this event four times (2001, 2005, 2011, 2012). And like Tony Schumacher in Top Fuel but with a more viable chance, the Pennzoil/NAPA Dodge Charger driver for Don Schumacher Racing is eyeing his chances to claim another championship. Robert Hight, of John Force Racing, and JR Todd, of Kalitta Motorsports, are battling in the top two spots.
"This is the time of year when everything you've worked for all season comes to this. Thankfully for me, our NAPA team is always in the hunt for a championship, and nothing is better than to go into the Las Vegas race and be in that conversation,” Capps, who entered this weekend in third place with a 109-point shortfall and Tim Wilkerson within two points, said.
“A lot of great stories have been written in the past at this fall Las Vegas event. It's where championships have been won and lost. We go to Vegas this year with some great momentum after winning the Carolina Nationals two weeks ago. While we're not as close as we would like to be, that win put us into third and in a position to have a run at the championship.”
His car displays the same Pennzoil/NAPA Funny Car paint scheme in this 530th race that distinguished it when he won in August at Seattle. He said, “As soon as we brought that car out, our fans loved it, and we would love nothing better than to put it right back in the winners circle in Vegas,” Capps said.
He’ll surrender lane choice as the No. 12 qualifier when he meets No. 5 John Force in the first round of eliminations Sunday. Force will be looking to help teammate and points leader Robert Hight, who qualified seventh and starts his day Sunday against No. 10 Shawn Langdon.
A FUNCTION OF MALFUNCTION – Jonnie Lindberg had looked relatively safe in the Funny Car field after the first day of qualifying, at No. 12. Looking to gain a few positions in the order, he performed his burnout in the third overall session Saturday. But his car was shut off at the starting line, and team owner Jim Head said vaguely – and with the weekend’s best use of alliteration – that the culprit was a “minor mechanical malfunction.” Lindberg, the No. 13 starter, will open eliminations Sunday against No. 4 Bob Tasca III.
KRAMER HOPES TO END STREAK – Deric Kramer hasn’t won a single round in the past five races (Indianapolis, Reading, St. Louis, Dallas, and Charlotte) and has skidded from sixth place to ninth in the standings. But maybe he’ll reverse things after sticking the Batman logo on his car and driving with a helmet redesigned as a Batman mask. He’ll try to get things on track against No. 6 Chris McGaha in the opening round of eliminations.
NHRA LAS VEGAS – FRIDAY NOTEBOOK
PLAYOFFS YIELD VARYING TRENDS; 12 VIE FOR ROOKIE-OF-YEAR HONORS; MARONEY PLANS TO GO SOLO IN 2019; VANDERGRIFF’S TIMING SPOT-ON; TASCA PEEKS INTO FUTURE; TORRENCE POISED TO CLINCH TOP FUEL TITLE; HIGHT, TODD GO TOE TO TOE IN FUNNY CAR; GRAY DOWNPLAYS PRO STOCK LEAD; IS THIS A FATHER-SON CHAMPIONSHIP YEAR?
SHAKE-UP IN THE MIDDLE OF PACK – Since the Countdown began, the top four ranked Top Fuel drivers (Steve Torrence, Clay Millican, Tony Schumacher, Leah Pritchett) remain in the same order. Heading into the final two events of the season, here’s who’s up, down, and right where they started in the standings:
UP – Antron Brown (sixth to fifth), Mike Salinas (ninth to seventh), Brittany Force (eighth to sixth);
DOWN – Doug Kalitta (fifth to eighth), Terry McMillen (seventh to ninth); and
SAME – Scott Palmer (10th)
TOTALLY SHUFFLED – No one in the Funny Car class still is in the same position he/she was in at the beginning of the Countdown. Moving up were Robert Hight (third to first), Ron Capps (fourth to third), JR Todd (fifth to second), Tommy Johnson Jr. (seventh to fifth), John Force (ninth to seventh), and Tim Wilkerson, with the biggest leap of all, from 10th to fourth. Tumbling in the standings were Courtney Force (first to sixth), Matt Hagan (second to eighth), Jack Beckman (sixth to ninth), and Shawn Langdon (eighth to 10th).
LOTS OF MOVEMENT – Points leader Tanner Gray and Countdown-field anchor Chris McGaha bookend the Pro Stock playoff class. But everyone else between first place and 10th have changed positions in the order. Improving in four Countdown races were Jeg Coughlin (fourth to second), Vincent Nobile (fifth to third), Drew Skillman (seventh to fourth), Jason Line (eighth to seventh), and Bo Butner (ninth to eighth). Three dropped in their rankings: Erica Enders (third to fifth), Greg Anderson (second to sixth), and Deric Kramer (sixth to ninth).
SMITH LEADS BIKE SCRAMBLE – All of the Pro Stock Motorcycle seedings have changed since the Countdown got under way. Matt Smith, with his dramatic leap from sixth place to first, leads a group of five who have moved up. That bunch includes L.E. Tonglet (third to second), Jerry Savoie (fifth to fourth), Angie Smith (ninth to seventh), and Angelle Sampey (tied for 10th to eighth). Disappointed by downward spirals were Eddie Krawiec (first to third), Andrew Hines (second to fifth), Hector Arana Jr. (fourth to sixth), Scotty Pollacheck (seventh to 10th), Steve Johnson (eighth to ninth), and Jim Underdahl (tied for 10th to 12th). In each of the four completed Countdown races, the bike class points lead has changed among three different racers (Krawiec, Matt Smith, Tonglet, then Smith again).
MARONEY HOPES TO SOLO IN 2019 – Jim Maroney is on the Toyota Nationals’ Top Fuel entry list here at Las Vegas this weekend, but the Gilbert, Ariz., businessman won’t be racing. He told Competition Plus this Monday that he and team owner / Funny Car driver Terry Haddock had a cordial parting.
“There’s no hard feelings of any kind at all,” Maroney said.
Maroney said he is trying to secure funding for his own team for the 2019 season.
“I’m working very hard to put my own deal together for 2019,” Maroney said. He added that he has a couple of companies interested in being associate sponsors and that he has hired a marketing representative to help acquire a marketing partner.
The veteran of nostalgia Funny Car racing said, “If the sponsor were more set on a Funny Car, I would go that route. But I’ve made more passes in a Top Fuel car. I never drove rear-engine cars until I drove a Top Fuel car.”
Maroney won a round in six races while associated with Haddock. He defeated Brittany Force in just his second start, this July at Denver.
This past weekend, Maroney went racing with sons Preston and Colton – on dirt in the San Tan Ford Sprint Car Series at Arizona Speedway, south of Phoenix.
“I had dabbled in dirt cars, circle-track stuff, in the early ‘90s. The last time I entered a race was in 1992. I got in the car last Saturday night for the first time since then,” Maroney said. “I have a few different sprint cars, and normally my two boys race. They decided, ‘Dad, it’s time for you to get in the car.’ I went out and practiced on Wednesday night and felt pretty good in the car and decided I was going to do it. Tell you what – I had a blast. In my heat race, I chose to tag the back of the pack, just because I didn’t know what to expect and I didn’t want to be in anybody’s way. I ended up fifth and did not get lapped. I actually finished right behind my son in the heat race.
“In the A Main, my son and I swapped cars. I actually ended up finishing 10th in his car. His car was having some problems, and he had a better shot of doing good than I did. So we put him in the good car, and I went out and tried to determine what was wrong with his car and ultimately pulled off the track about halfway through the race,” he said.
Preston Maroney is the clutch man on Dad’s Top Fuel dragster. Jim Maroney’s 17-year-old daughter, the younger of his two girls, also helps work on the dragster and races, as well.
THE ALWAYS SURPRISING WORLD OF TROY BUFF – Troy Buff’s most recent appearance on the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series was in early August, at Seattle, where he qualified No. 11 and fell to Leah Pritchett in the first round. But his most recent visit to The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was a bit of an odd experience. Team owner Bill Miller had said at the NHRA Finals in November 2017 that he was stepping away from competition. Then Miller had second thoughts. He decided to go to the Phoenix race, No. 2 of 24, this February – where Buff started 13th and also ran up against Pritchett in Round 1.
Buff said, “Then we said, ‘Let’s go to Vegas.’ When he called me and asked me about it, I said, ‘I’m ready.’ And I was scared to tell him: ‘You know it is four-wide, right, because you don’t really like the four-wide?’ And he said, “What do you think about that?’ I said, ‘I want to do it once.’ I’ve never done it. So we went there. My first run at four-wide [in qualifying] was a single [run].” But he got the full four-wide experience soon enough. Buff recalled, “In the first round, I had three of the baddest dudes on the planet [Clay Millican, Steve Torrence, and Billy Torrence]. I don’t have very good luck for some reason.”
However, all that wasn’t half as scary or disturbing as what he went through last year off the track. He had a throat cancer scare.
At one race, he had laryngitis.
“I couldn’t even talk. I lost my voice. I went to my doctor, and he said that my stomach acid is coming up at night and burning my vocal cords. I had heartburn. He gave me whatever for heartburn and then a month later it was getting worse so I went back to him. He repeated the same thing, actually upped the dose of the heartburn medicine. And I thought, ‘This is weird,’” Buff said. “I finally went to a specialist, because I went to three doctors. I went to a specialist, and he said the same thing. I said, ‘Nobody will look at my throat. I really feel like there’s something in my throat.’
“He looked down my throat and he scared me,” Buff said. He said, ‘I’m not sure, but I’m 99-percent sure you have cancer.’ I said, ‘That’s how you tell someone?’ He said, ‘There’s no easy way to say this.’ But then he sent me to a specialist that he said could remove it and I could actually talk again. If he touched it, he said, ‘You would never talk the same if you could talk at all.’ It was right in between the vocal cords, attached to both. This doctor performed a biopsy after following Buff’s hometown race, at Houston, last year, and the Bill Miller team sat out for a couple of races.
The results showed a benign diagnosis. “It was a cyst on my vocal cords,” Buff said. “It was the weirdest thing. They don’t know what caused it. I said, ‘Maybe cigarettes?’ The doctor told him, “I’d love to lie to you and tell you that’s what it was, but that’s not what it was.”
So Buff’s next question was “Should I quit smoking?” Her answer surprised him. He said she told him, “I’d love if you would, but that has nothing to do with it. And I’d hate to tell you, that because I don’t want to be not honest with you. But I have to be honest with you.”
He said, “That was probably the worst thing she could have told me. I went out and bought a pack of cigarettes and started smoking again. I’m just addicted to cigarettes, and it sucks.”
He said he has tried on two occasions since then to quit smoking but “obviously, I’m not very successful at it. I come to the races and I want a cigarette.”
But he has a heartfelt message, especially for young people: “That’s not cool. I wouldn’t suggest any kids start smoking, because this is that hardest thing in the world to give up, I think. I’ve tried. It’s hard.”
The addiction of driving a race car, Buff said, is “even worse than cigarettes.”
READY TO CLINCH TITLE – Steve Torrence said he hopes he can ice his first Top Fuel championship this weekend and not wait until the NHRA Finals at Pomona, Calif., in two weeks.
“We’re going to stick to our guns, race hard in Vegas, and I would love to put it to sleep [here],” the Capco Dragster driver said.
“It helps that I’ve been in the situation before,” Torrence said. “We still have to do the same thing at the last race as the first race. To be honest, we don’t change anything. We just keep going. We just need to stay focused on the task at hand, try to qualify well and go some rounds. That’s what has worked well for us. You’ve got to keep your eye on the prize. We’ve gotten to where we’re staying extremely focused, taking it one race, one round at a time. I think that’s the only way you can do things. We’ve learned to stay focused on the task and not let anything deviate you.
“Your job doesn’t change. If you look at it that way, it makes it easier,” he said. “But you need to enjoy the moment. I’m having so much fun. At the end of the day, I’m driving a Top Fuel dragster and racing for a championship. Not many people get that opportunity, and I am thankful for it. I’m thankful to the Lord, thankful to my parents, and thankful to all these Capco boys. We’re going to follow the same script this week and race as hard as we know how to every run. Then whatever happens happens.”
Torrence’s 2017 performance was impressive, with eight victories, but he has been even more astounding this season, winning nine times for a career total of 25. He’s also perfect in final rounds this year, including four (all so far) in the Countdown.
The maximum number of points a driver can earn at the season finale at Pomona is 191 points. But one more strong result here this weekend could seal the deal for Torrence. And he said he has faith in his crew.
“It’s remarkable to sit back and just watch,” Torrence said of them. “What they’re able to do time and time again, it’s impressive. The guys are just tough. They work hard to keep this thing going, and it’s a passion and what they love to do. Everybody sets out and wants to be a winner and champion, but it’s difficult to get there and it takes a team to get there. It takes a lot of determination, and these guys put in the work. If they get knocked down, they just stand back up.”
But right now, Torrence and his team are the ones who are knocking everyone else down.
HIGHT, TODD STAGING EPIC FUNNY CAR DUEL – Points leader Robert Hight, driving while healing from a broken collarbone, has to look over his sore shoulder at Kalitta Mototsports’ JR Todd, his closest rival in the Funny Car championship battle. Todd lurks in second place, a mere 11 points off the pace.
Todd won at Indianapolis to close the regular season, won the playoff opener at Reading, and since has been to two finals at the past two races to close in on Hight.
“Really, it’s all you can ask for,” Todd said, “and hopefully we can keep it up. As a driver, this is pretty much all you can ask for, having a shot at a championship. This DHL team is a championship-caliber team.
“We ran well last year at a certain point and fell off in the Countdown. This year, we turned it around in Indy. And when the performance of the car comes around and you can make consistent runs like we have, it makes it more fun and really raises your confidence level as a driver. You don’t have to worry about a lot of other things,” he said. “I’ve never really been in this position before. In 2014, we finished second (in Top Fuel) but we weren’t really in the hunt. This is what it’s all about. I keep saying we need to go out and keep doing what we’ve been doing. We just have to keep making consistent runs, gain as many points as we can and keep going rounds.”
He said, “You definitely have to seize the moment and block out the distractions. You have to enjoy the moment and not let it get the best of you. We’re having a lot of fun with it, and Vegas is one of my favorite races of the year. It draws a lot of people, and it’s a big race for Toyota. So we just have to stay focused on the task at hand. There’s going to be a lot of important Toyota people there, and it would be awesome to celebrate in the winners circle with them on Sunday.”
Meanwhile, Hight has worked his way up through the standings from third to first, thanks to a semifinal finish at Reading and victories at St. Louis and Dallas. His most recent outing, at Charlotte, ended in the second round against No. 3 Ron Capps (who has gained three positions in the standings just since the Dallas event).
“At the beginning of the Countdown, I felt like you would need to win three races and not have any first-round losses if you wanted to win the championship,” Hight said. “I am not sure three wins will be enough, but we are in a good spot to defend our championship. I love how [crew chiefs] Jimmy [Prock] and Chris [Cunningham] have this Auto Club Chevrolet Camaro running. We are going down the racetrack every run, and we are quick and fast. I need to be at the top of my game, too. This is going to be an exciting weekend and last two races.”
He said, “Racing in Las Vegas in the fall is all about the Mello Yello NHRA championship. We have the points lead, but we need to keep the pressure on the rest of the Funny Cars. No one can afford a mistake. I love racing here, and we have done well at The Strip. The key is to just treat this like any other race. You can’t change your routine or focus because there are only two races left.”
Hight has won twice at this event, and at this venue he has been No. 1 qualifier three times and started from among the top three nine times. It was at The Strip last October that he used a semifinal finish to take the points lead for good.
“We have a lot of data from The Strip, and that race track has been good to us,” Hight said. “Jimmy and Chris have a lot of confidence. I feed off their confidence and I think it makes its way through the whole team. We have been through this fight before, and we are going to give it our best.”
GRAY DOWNPLAYS HIS LEAD – Teenage phenom Tanner Gray has a sizeable lead in the Pro Stock championship hunt, but he is downplaying it for now.
The seven-time winner in 10 final rounds shrugged off his achievements in the Gray Motorsports/Valvoline Camaro, saying, “It’s still way too early to even think about being a champion or anything like that,” said Gray, who already has 12 wins in 46 career races. “We just have to keep fighting and keep digging and keep racing as hard as we can until the end. Especially with points and a half [at the finale at Pomona, Calif.], there’s still a lot of time and racing left. We have to make sure we stay aggressive and consistent, and we just have to continue put ourselves in a good position to win.”
So far so good for Gray. He has won twice in three final rounds during the Countdown alone and overall has been to the final round at six of the past seven races (with four victories).
“One of the things that’s helped for the success this year is everyone having the same mindset and same goal,” Gray said. “We’ve been able to click, and for the most part it’s been a really smooth season for us. I’ve learned from all the mistakes I made last year, and I knew what to expect going into the Countdown this year. I knew the mindset and approach I had to take. It’s made everything a lot smoother. I worked really hard in the off-season, and it feels like everything is paying off.”
He isn’t smug about his position at all, knowing that at least four others behind him could have a surge and disturb his comfort zone. Five-time champion Jeg Coughlin is in second place, 130 point behind. Vincent Nobile trails by only 136. Drew Skillman, who like Gray will be leaving the class after this season, needs to make up 153 points, and two-time champion Erica Enders has a harder row to hoe at 171 off the pace. But a driver can earn a maximum of 191 points at the Finals in two weeks.
Gray’s career-first Pro Stock victory came at the spring Las Vegas rave last year. As he looked back at that, he said he has been enjoying his experience: “We’re enjoying the ride, and I’ve been super thankful for this opportunity. I’ve been able to work with the best group of guys I could ask for. It’s really been a lot of fun, and I’ve had a blast. About mid-season or a little before, I really just sat back and started trying to appreciate the time with the guys. There’s a lot of things that could be worse, and it’s about enjoying the moment and just having fun with it. And it’s been a blast.”
WON’T GO OUT WITHOUT A FIGHT – Second-place Jeg Coughlin, who’s 130 points off Pro Stock leader Tanner Gray’s pace with eight elimination rounds remaining in the season, said he recognizes that “it's certainly an extreme longshot to win the Pro Stock championship at this point.” But he said he’s not giving up: “There is no surrender in this JEGS.com Elite Performance Chevrolet race team. Until they drop the curtain on the 2018 season at the end of the Pomona race, we'll be fighting for everything we can get. It's important for all of us to finish as high as we can, including our goal of finishing No. 1 overall." Since the spring four-wide Las Vegas race, Coughlin has improved from 11th place to second in the standings. He has done it on the strength of victories at Chicago, Bristol, and Sonoma and runner-up finishes at Indianapolis and Dallas (against Gray in both events).
"We've had a heck of a run ever since the latter part of spring and it's continued into the playoffs," Coughlin said. "We just have a team and a driver out front in Tanner Gray and the Gray Motorsports crew that isn't making any mistakes lately. He's doing a great job and he's proven himself to be a very good driver. We'll need him to get beat early at both of these final two races to have a legitimate chance of catching him."
Coughlin is 61-time winner in the Pro Stock class, and five of those victories have come at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. (He won the inaugural event in 2000 and stretched it to three in a row and scored back-to-back victories again in 2008-09). He also has three runner-up finishes at Las Vegas (both the spring and fall events in 2001 and the fall race in 2014). He led the field in 207 and 2008, and in 31 appearances here, his Pro Stock elimination record is 49-24. He has won six times at Pomona, Calif., site of the season finale in two weeks.
"Both the Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Auto Club Raceway in Pomona have been very good tracks for us,” he said, “so if I had to pick two tracks to go to needing to win both races, it would probably be these two tracks. They're definitely high on my list of favorites.
"There's lots to do and fun to be had before we're done," Coughlin said. "I think it's been well documented how cohesive this team is across all four race cars. And if you look how everyone is doing this year, it's obvious to see the caliber of the professionals in this pit and back at the engine shop in Oklahoma.
"It's interesting to be in this position where we're hoping for a miracle. But as a kid watching my dad compete at National Trail Raceway, I remember walking under the crosswalk there and seeing 'Only the Strong Survive' painted on that thing. It's something that really stuck out in my mind then, and later I learned how true that is in this sport. This is a strong group, and whether we finish on top or not, we're survivors and we will remain in the fight."
FATHER-SON CHAMPIONS THIS YEAR? – The NHRA could see both a father and his son win championships. Matt Smith is hoping to stretch his Pro Stock Motorcycle points lead with one more race remaining in the season after this weekend. But this weekend will determine if his father, veteran racer Rickie Smith, can close a 24-point gap and overtake Pro Modified leader Mike Janis for The E3 / J&A Service class title.
Matt Smith hasn’t focused on that. He’s just keeping his nose to the grindstone, helping wife Angie with her improved performance, guiding rookie-of-the-year-candidate clients Mark Paquette and Ron Tornow, and doing his best with his own motorcycle. And a testament to how well he has juggled all those tasks is the fact he has risen to the top with far fewer resources than many of his rivals this year.
“We’re coming in on a high from winning Charlotte. We’ve won two races in the Countdown, been in three finals of the Countdown. We spend a lot of time at home fixing motors we’ve hurt. I’ve been doing something stupid in the tune-up department. I’ve got to get back to where I was at in Brainerd and Indy and go back to running fast. I think we have the momentum to win this championship,” Matt Smith said.
He said it’s a “relief” to have so many responsibilities at the racetrack.
“Mark tunes his own bike. I give him the motor and say, ‘Start with this map and go with it.’ We look at stuff occasionally. He kind of does his own thing. Ron, I totally tune everything. But tuning that bike kind of relieves me, because . . . I look at it like this . . . If I tune my own stuff so much, I second- and third-guess myself. When I have more bikes out here, I seem to do better,” Smith said.
Smith has said he’ll dabble in NHRA Pro Stock racing in 2019. What might be a factor in his decision is that the Pro Stock Motorcycle class is strong right now.
“The class is healthy. When you get 22 bikes, that’s good for our sport,” he said. “It’s going to be tough to get in [qualify]. Hopefully we can get all our clients in the show and I can do my job and go some rounds and extend this point lead going into Pomona.”
Winning his third championship, he said, “would do big deals for us. We’re still looking for that major sponsor to come on board with us. For me not having a sponsor this year . . . I qualified for the first race of the year with somebody else’s stuff. It’d be a relief for me and Angie to have a winter, have a little vacation time. Winning the championship would be very, very big for us.”
Lucas Oil, Mark Stockseth, Denso Spark Plugs, and Elite Performance have led the way in helping Smith stay on the track this year.
TASCA TOUTS NHRA SURGE, FORD TECHNOLOGY – Although he barely missed the Countdown to the Championship at the last minute, Funny Car owner-driver Bob Tasca has a lot to be excited about these days. That was evident when he participated in a in a recent Autoweek magazine-sponsored podcast. A Ford evangelist, Tasca preached the product innovation coming from the automaker’s Dearborn, Mich., headquarters. While he had an eye on future automotive developments, the Rhode Island Ford dealer gave a brief sermon about the status of NHRA drag racing.
“The sport, no matter how you look at it, is growing. And that is almost unheard of with motorsports today. The NHRA in today’s world is as relevant as it’s ever been,” Tasca said.
“We’re in a society [of a demand for] instant information. NHRA plays to that younger generation that wants instant gratification. [In] our sport, someone wins, someone loses in three seconds. Then it happens again – and again and again and again. And you don’t have to wait two or three hours to see the final outcome. Social media-wise, it plays extremely well. Us drivers don’t especially like it, but there’s a lot of explosions, too. There’s excitement where you’re going to see a car at 300 miles per hour on fire with no brakes. It’s certainly exciting to watch, not as exciting to be in it. The sport and the access you have as a fan, you’re not sitting in a chair for two and a half or three hours. You watch a round then go to the pits. You see us tear the cars apart, down to the bar block, and back together again in under 37 minutes. And we go back and race again. The on-site experience is unlike anything you’ll ever find,” he said.
“I can brag about NHRA, but just look at the numbers,” Tasca said. “We’re up in attendance. We’re up in TV viewership. We’re up in social media. How many motorsports globally can say that?”
Tasca, who for 20 years has sat on a Ford Motor Company advisory board on which his grandfather and father also once served, was relentless in waving data in front of company decision-makers after Ford exited professional drag racing. He said their reaction to his flood of data was “We like it. We get it. But how are you going to win? That’s the only reason why we race, ultimately.”
So Tasca formed a strategic alliance with Don Schumacher Racing, one that allows him to own his own Funny Car team and work with his own marketing partners.
“Trust me – Don Schumacher wants to beat me as bad as any other car on the track. But you need a big machine behind you to build the parts and the technology. Then the next big piece of the equation we’re working on is aerodynamics. [Ford] had to jump back in with both feet to design a Funny Car body that is the slipperiest body to go down a dragstrip. And we’re in the middle of that right now,” Tasca said. “I won’t have it for this season. I’ll have it for next season.”
This current program he has, with Eric Lane managing the crew, is coming together as a competitive force after its hasty beginning.
“Literally, from the time Ford said, ‘Go’ to the time we had a team together [was] six weeks to start from scratch and get to Pomona [Calif., for the season-opener this February]. It took us probably five or six races to get our program rolling. And if you look at the last five or six races, we’re arguably one of the best cars in the country. Our program is picking up steam quickly,” Tasca said. “And that’s why Ford came back. That’s why I came back: we want to have a program this year out of the box that could run for the championship. We certainly have some more work to go. But we’re in a good position.”
And so is Ford, he said, alluding to electric and autonomous vehicles.
“It’s absolutely incredible, the technology. You talk about Apple and Microsoft, I leave these meetings with Ford, and the technology, with electric and autonomous, all the content that they’re putting into these vehicles, is mind-blowing,” Tasca said. “And I think we’re on a precipice over the next three, five, 10 years that our business is going to change. The definition of what a car looks like is going to change. What you’re going to use a car for is going to change, with autonomous technology as that unfolds. And Ford is at the forefront of this automotive revolution.”
He said Bill Ford told him that the move from today’s status quo to Ford’s new products is equivalent to the radical, groundbreaking leap from horse-and-buggy days to the automobile. “It’s a little ways out [on a timeline], but it’s not as far out as you may think.”
Tasca said he “would love to see” electrification “impact the NHRA. The electric technology that’s here and coming down the road, it’s instant torque. It would apply unbelievably well to drag racing. We need torque. We need to move the car now.”
He said electric cars will hit the dragstrip “in a very formal way with an actual class” probably sooner rather than later. “I think it’s a lot closer than some people think. I’ve driven them on Ford’s test track. It’s incredible technology. It’s fun to drive. It’s environmentally friendly. What’s really transforming is you don’t have to go to a gas station. I don’t think it’s going to replace nitro Funny Car anytime soon. I think it would be fantastic. [“Big Daddy” Don] Garlits is developing something with electric. But as electric starts to proliferate on the streets, it’s only natural that it’s going to end up on the dragstrip. I would love to dabble with it.”
YOUNG VANDERGRIFF NEW FACE FOR SPORT? – The NHRA continues to insist it indeed is attracting younger racers and fans, yet it’s making a concentrated effort to target both. So maybe 23-year-old Jordan Vandergriff has come along at the perfect time. Team owner Bob Vandergriff Jr. announced Oct. 19 that his nephew will drive a second Top Fuel dragster, with D-A Lubricants and its PennGrade Motor Oil brand as primary sponsor, as a partner to Blake Alexander.
Jordan Vandergriff is licensed in Super Comp and this year has been racing Anthony Dicero’s A/Fuel Dragster this year as part of a driver-development association between the two operations that Bob Vandergriff called exciting. The program isn’t for the benefit of only Jordan Vandergriff. “Our plan is to create opportunities for other young drivers to compete and help them with the progression of their careers, as well,” Bob Vandergriff Jr. said.
Alexander, who has raced and won twice this season under the Pronto / LoCo Cookers banner in his limited-run return to Top Fuel competition, said he’s thrilled to have Jordan Vandergriff step up from the sportsman ranks for Bob Vandergriff Racing.
“We’re here after the race, finalizing everything, getting it all set in stone. So we’re excited about that,” he said. “Our team will be able to win more often, because we’ve got two cars. As we both get better as drivers and as a team, it’ll allow us to compete at a higher level.”
The news had to be fantastic for NHRA President Glen Cromwell, who said, “Our sport is aligned so perfectly for today’s generation of youth, in the sense that it is instant gratification. And it’s extreme. And a lot of this younger generation is multitasking: looking at their phones. We’re a perfect sport for it. We’re interactive. We’re all-access. You don’t have to sit in a seat for two or three hours to watch a sport. You can come in here and watch for 45 minutes. You can do whatever you want. You can stand on the fence. You can go sit in a seat. You can go do pull-ups on the Army display. You can go get a sample of Mello Yello. There’s a lot of interaction going on. In today’s world and the future, that’s what people want. They want to be able to be mobile and choose what they want. The NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series is perfectly aligned for the future."
DOZEN ROOKIES VIE FOR ROAD TO FUTURE AWARD – Four Pro Stock Motorcycle racers are among the 12 professional competitors in the running for the 2018 Auto Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award that goes to the sport’s top rookie. A panel of media members will select the winner, whose identity will remain secret until the Nov. 12 Awards Ceremony at Los Angeles. Kelly Clontz, Ryan Oehler, Mark Paquette, and Ron Tornow represent the bike class on the list. Also on the ballot are five Top Fuel drivers: Kebin Kinsley, Bill Litton, Jim Maroney, Terry Totten, and Audrey Worm. Richard Townsend is the lone Funny Car racer in the voting process, and Wally Stroupe is the only Pro Stocker up for the prestigious honor.
BUTT-HURT – Pro Stock Motorcycle racer Joey Gladstone is butt-hurt – literally. And that’s why Cory Reed is back on the Team Liberty Buell this weekend.
“He crashed a jet ski and bruised his right butt cheek,” team owner Reed said with a laugh. “It has been a week now, but every time he goes to sit down, right before he hits [the seat], he goes ‘Ow-ow-ow.’ Poor guy. He’s butt-hurt.”
Gladstone agreed: “It sucks. Damaged goods right now.”
He joked about not having to “sit out” this race. He preferred to say he was “standing out” but sighed that this is how he will be “outstanding” this weekend
The accident happened at an estimated 70 miles an hour.
“The jet ski is what hit me,” Gladstone said. “It booted me off. People said, ‘It’s going to bite you in the ass one day.’ Yeah, it did! At least I can walk away relatively unharmed. But it sucks.”
Reed suspected he will be on the bike for just this race, that Gladstone will return to action at Pomona in two weeks. “We might just trade. The bike does work a little better with him on it,” Reed said.
“If I’m better by Pomona, I’ll ride,” Gladstone said. “We have to decide the Monday before the race. We’ll see. I can barely ride a scooter, let alone a Pro Stock Motorcycle.”
Reed finished Friday 19th among 22 entrants with two more chances to break into the 16-bike field.
NOT IN PLAYOFF BUT RACING LIKE IT – Tommy DeLago, Cruz Pedregon’s Funny Car crew chief, said, “Even though we’re not in the Countdown, we’re racing as though we are.And it’s paying off in the numbers we’re seeing. We’ve had four runs of 3.94 [seconds] or better, and we like the way the season is finishing out for Cruz and the Snap-on Toyota. We qualified in the top five and won a round for the fourth straight race.”
Pedregon said, “We’re pleased with the strong numbers we’ve been seeing in the threes and have had a series of Round 1 wins, so we plan to stick with that game plan and go more rounds in Vegas Sunday. The El Cucuy ‘Boogeyman' body is making a positive impression in its Pink Fund paint scheme. All of us know or have someone in our lives impacted by breast cancer. So we hope having ‘Socket to Breast Cancer’ on the car is helping to raise awareness of The Pink Fund. Our primary sponsor, Snap-on, is supporting the nonprofit in its mission to connect individuals undergoing breast cancer treatment to the help they may need with non-medical expenses.”
This is the final race for the pink Snap-on "Socket to Breast Cancer" logo on the sleek black background. Snap-on Tools is making an initial $50,000 donation, and The Pink Fund will receive additional funds generated through Snap-on sales promotions. Find out more at Pinkfund.org.
Meanwhile, Pedregon tentatively is seventh on the qualifying sheet after two runs.
WILL MOMO HAVE MOJO? – Maurice Allen, the 48-year-old Australian Pro Stock Motorcycle racer from Croydon, Victoria, near Melbourne, goes by the nickname “Momo.” Considering his ’92 Suzuki is the oldest in the field, it would be a surprise if in only his second appearance in NHRA competition he would win this race that has 18 entrants (two more than the starting field will have room for). But Allen is the reigning and three-time series champion in Australia. With an offer from the Stoffer-Underdahl team to ride the bike Joey Gladstone left to join Team Liberty in August and with help from Eddie Krawiec as well as Greg Underdahl and Gary Stoffer, Allen started his U.S. experience – “something I’ve always wanted to do,” he said – at Charlotte in a loaded field and missed the cut.
“I’ve been racing in Pro Stock Motorcycle since 1991. Steve Gibbs invited me over to NHRA, as he was in Australia when I won our biggest event of the year in my first season in Pro Stock Motorcycle and my dad (Pommie Pete Allen) won Top Fuel Motorcycle at the same time. It was the first time in the world a father and son had both won a pro category at the same event,” Allen said.
He has helped his chances by shedding 30 pounds, always helpful for a motorcycle racer.
“I have lost approximately 30 pounds in the last six weeks to get in shape for this tour,” Allen said. “I did it through a combination of diet and exercise. I followed the Keto Diet, which is a protein-only-based diet – and a lot of cardio work, as well.”
This is his first visit to Las Vegas, but Allen indicated he won’t be going wild on The Strip, at least not the gambling one.
“I might have a small bet at the casinos,” he said. “However, I’d be relying on some beginner’s luck, that’s for sure.”
He said he’s happy to “be with a great bunch of people. And we are all getting on very well. And I can’t thank Gary [Stoffer] and Greg [Underdahl] and the whole team, really, for their warm welcome. Thank you for the support – and follow us on Facebook at Maurice Allen Racing. And we must also thank our Australian supporters who have been great and wishing us well.”
POLLACHECK FOCUSING ON POSITIVES – Pro Stock Motorcycle’s Scotty Pollacheck has had a disappointing Countdown, dropping from seventh place to 10th. He said that actually has been a year-long problem: “We have struggled mist of the year.” However, he was third in the standings for the first three bike races and fourth for awhile and had a runner-up finish at Atlanta. The Center Point, Ore., resident said he’s optimistic about making performance gains at the last two events of the season, here and at Pomona, Calif. “We are making little strides with the motorcycle. The last two races are usually pretty good events for us. It’s always great to go to two of our favorite races. Hopefully what we have learned will give us a boost for the end of the year,” Pollacheck said. Plans for 2019 aren’t finalized yet, he said – “We don’t have anything to announce for next year. As always, we are working to make something happen.” Pollacheck is 12th overnight at this weekend’s Toyota Nationals here at Las Vegas.
IRRITATED IN A GOOD WAY? – The Funny Car driver who has made the most improvement in the standings during the Countdown is fourth-place Tim Wilkerson, who opened in 10th place and has pulled to within 111 points of leader Robert Hight with two races to go.
“Everything looks good, and even though the other teams are doing just as well, we know our Levi, Ray and Shoup Mustang is a good car. It's a good time of year to be this optimistic," the Springfield, Ill., owner-tuner-driver said.
"A lot of the focus is on the points, but for us, we're just trying to focus on winning rounds, and if the rounds fall in our favor, then we're doing pretty good,” Wilkerson said. “I can't control what the other guys are doing, so our focus really has to be on our own game. We know that when we get to Pomona in a couple weeks for the Finals, we have to have a good race, and we're going to have to get our big-boy pants on for that one. Vegas could be that way, too. No matter what, I'm wound up. I have something for them. I might be getting more focused and more irritated, but that's usually a good thing for us."
He defeated Ashley Force Hood here in the 2008 spring-race final for his lone victory at this facility.
Wilkerson is sixth in the tentative lineup after two of four qualifying sessions.
COURTNEY FORCE HAS SLIM CHANCE STILL – Robert Hight, JR Todd, Ron Capps, Tim Wilkerson, and Tommy Johnson Jr. all would have to earn no bonus points, fail to qualify, or drop out in the first round and Courtney Force would have to dominate totally if she is to make up her 181-point deficit in the Funny Car championship chase and earn her first series crown. Such a massive implosion isn’t likely, but Force has only to look at her pre-Countdown performance to bolster her confidence. She was strong in the so-called “regular season,” with 10 No. 1 qualifying positions and victories at Phoenix, Atlanta, Topeka, and Richmond – as well as final-round appearances at both four-wide races (here and at Charlotte), Norwalk, and Seattle. Force, in her Advance Auto Parts Chevy Camaro, opened the Countdown as the top-seeded driver but has stumbled to sixth place.
“Our Advance Auto Parts team has had a lot of success at the Las Vegas race track, not just the two-wide race but also the four-wide race in the spring,” Force said. “We know that we still have a shot at the championship, and we just have to perform at our best these last two races. [The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway] has been a great track for my team, and we have been to multiple final rounds [here]. And we are hoping to seal the deal this weekend.”
She said her team’s performance in the most recent race, at Charlotte, made her feel somewhat better about her chances. She said she “had really great incremental times during the first round in Charlotte. The conditions were prime, and we had the car set up to run in the [3.]80s, but I think we got a little ahead of ourselves. We overpowered the track. We were ahead the whole race but we spun [the tires] down-track, and we lost the race. It was definitely a bummer. I think we have a fast hot-rod. We just have to get the kinks worked out.”
She worked out at least some Friday, driving to the provisional No. 2 position, behind early leader Jack Beckman.
BROWN: ‘LET’S GO PLACES’ – Three-time Top Fuel champion Antron Brown is stuck in fifth place in the standings, thanks mostly to his Don Schumacher Racing/U.S. Army-sponsored teammate Tony Schumacher, who has eliminated him at three of the four completed Countdown races. Leader Steve Torrence’s closest rival, Clay Millican, knocked him off at the other one.
“You certainly have a different mindset coming in when you are trying to protect a lead. I wish we were in that position right now, but we are in attack mode, instead,” Brown, who drives the Matco Tools/U.S. Army/Toyota Dragster, said.
Brown said, “We basically go in with the tag line ‘Let’s Go Places,’ and the place we want to go is the winner’s circle. When I go to Las Vegas at The Strip, it’s like a winner-take-all type of feel. The stakes are big, it’s the second-to-last race of the year. We want to show up and get another win before the season is over. We want to close out the season strong. That’s what motivates us. We want to go out there and do it at the Toyota Nationals.”
He knows how it feels to arrive here poised to secure a series title, and despite the fact that’s not the case this weekend, Brown is prepared to go all-out: “If you look at the years we came to Las Vegas with the lead, it was because we won three of the first four Countdown races. We’re still trying to get our first one of the Countdown this year, and that’s going to be our all-out focus this weekend. We’ve had times when we’ve had an extremely fast race car this year. We just need to be more consistent. And we just have not had the luck we’ve needed – so far.”
His luck was pretty decent Friday, as he positioned himself fourth in the order. He has two more opportunities to improve Saturday.
NEW LOOK, PARTS FOR PRITCHETT – People like different pizza combinations. People get an oil change now and again. Sometimes U.S. Army soldiers wear dress blues, sometimes they don camouflage uniforms. Leah Pritchett, who has raced with Papa John’s Pizza-, Pennzoil-, and Army-themed paint schemes for her Don Schumacher Racing-owned dragster this year, likes a variety, too. This weekend she unveiled a never-before-seen look – a “Vegas-inspired” design that complements the one on Matt Hagan’s Funny Car. And she said, “We’ve never had a reveal like this, but most importantly, we’re hoping to put our eye-catching ‘digger’ in the winner’s circle.”
She got a structural upgrade for her car for these final two races of the season.
“We’re going hard, so much so that we have some new internal and external [parts]. The Pennzoil/U.S. Army/DSR fab shop men went hard to work after Charlotte with yet another front-half pipe on our dragster. It’s not a move most teams make during the Countdown, but it was necessary,” she said.
Pritchett clearly enjoyed using all the Las Vegas lingo when talking about this weekend: “Vegas – for most, it’s the land of luck and bright lights, but for us heading back to the high desert with just two races left means betting it all. All the chips on the table, playing our best cards and taking chances, all with new livery. The focus at this point continues to be getting a solid first qualifying hit so we can put it down in Q2, and build on it to go for low every time to gain qualifying points, and then, ultimately, go four rounds deep into the eliminations on Sunday. It’s been almost two weeks since our last race, and I know for me it’s felt like a month ago. With 10 airport stops and non-stop travel since then, I am so incredibly ready to be back racing with my guys and illuminating our own Vegas win lights.”
FUN IS THE OPERATIVE WORD – Bo Butner called the previous race, at Charlotte, “a struggle” and said, “We really never ever made a very good run, but the positive is that Jason's car is running well.” He was referring to KB/Summit Racing Camaro teammate Jason Line, who broke through with his first triumph of the year but 50th overall. “And,” Butner said, “I'm smart enough to know all that is contagious.”
Maybe this will be the year the reigning champion scores a Pro Stock victory here. He has four Wally trophies from nine final-round appearances at Las Vegas, but they all have come in the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series for sportsmEn. He has won three times in the Comp Eliminator class, including in 2012, when he also won at this fall race in Stock Eliminator. He has been runner-up in Pro Stock four times.
Whatever happens, Butner has promised himself he’ll have fun this weekend. "We always have a lot of fun at the Vegas race, and this time we're expecting that this is going to be another one of those really fun, enjoyable races. My oldest son and his wife will be there, and my mom, so no matter what we're going to have a good time. One of the things that I've learned through this deal is that winning isn't everything. It sounds strange to say that as a Pro Stock racer, but I think it's true. You have to enjoy what you're doing. That's what we're going to do this weekend. If we win, great, but no matter what, we're going to really enjoy these last couple of races."
He'll start Saturday qualifying from the tentative No. 10 spot.
LINE WANTS BACK-TO-BACK ACHIEVEMENT – Jason Line might not know what to do for an encore. At the previous race, two weeks ago at zMAX Dragway at Concord, N.C., in front of his home crowd, the KB/Summit Racing Camaro driver earned the 300th win for Chevrolet in Pro Stock. Line also captured the 200th for Chevy at Sonoma, Calif., in 2014. Moreover, Line earned his 50th career victory during the 50th anniversary year of longtime sponsor Summit Racing. This weekend he and his teammates Greg Anderson and Bo Butner are racing in the hometown of team owners Ken and Judy Black.
"I was appreciative to be back in the winner's circle in Charlotte, and I'd sure like to get back there again with my Summit Racing Chevrolet Camaro before the season is over. I think good things create more good things. So who knows what will happen?” Line said. “Pro Stock has changed, for sure, and we're working in a small box. So it's very difficult to separate yourself from everyone else. This year has been about whoever does the best job, both engine and chassis tune-up-wise, and possibly even more importantly, with the left foot. I will say that I feel much better going into these last two races than I did two races ago, and I have a chance to win. I just have to do my job."
He closed Friday qualifying eighth in the order and has two runs coming Saturday.
Line has won twice here in six final rounds. His most recent triumph at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was in the spring of 2016, when he defeated Butner. He never has won the fall event here, although he has been runner-up three times and was low qualifier three times.
Las Vegas aside, Line has expressed gratitude for his Pro Stock journey after the Charlotte victory, his first of the season.
"I want to thank all the folks at Summit Racing for sticking with me. This 50th Wally goes to them, for sure. Without them, I don't think any of this could have happened," said Line at the top end of the racetrack two Sundays ago. Then with his typical self-critical humor, he added, “I want to thank our team owners Ken and Judy Black, as well as Mello Yello, Chevrolet Performance, everybody in my family, and the few fans I have left. Everybody stuck with me,” Line said, “and that means so much. I'm as excited as I get. Thank you."
LIKE EVERYONE IN VEGAS, PALMER SEEKING LUCK – Scott Palmer and his fans have a reciprocal love. And that’s why the Top Fuel owner-driver especially enjoyed Thursday night’s NHRA Fan Fest on Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas. He signed autographs and posed for pictures with his usual outgoing personality, but he also used the chance to talk about kitty litter. Yes, cat litter – well, one brand in particular. " The fans have always been phenomenal and very cool to me and our team," Palmer said. "I love opportunities like this where we can spend some extra time with them, sort of away from the racetrack, and just hang out. It's also a great time to tell people about CatSpot Organic Cat Litter and how good it is for cat owners and their families. These guys have been so supportive of us and I love spreading the word about CatSpot to our fans."
But on the track, competition hasn’t been as much fun. In the first four Countdown races, Palmer has just one elimination round-win.
"We need a change of luck," Palmer, who has plenty of company on that count in a city full of casino gamblers, said. "As the leader of this group, I know how hard my guys have worked this season, first to get us into the 10-car playoff field and then to put us in position to have a bunch of success down the stretch. For whatever reason, we have just fallen into this slump, and we need to get past it.
"Lots of ideas have been tossed around, and the guys are volunteering to do all kinds of things to bust this slump, but we really know it just takes persistence and more hard work,” he said. “We've been running pretty well. We just keep getting tough match-ups on Sunday, and we're losing races by fractions of a second."
Teammate Dom Lagana (who drives a part-time schedule himself) and crew chief Jason McCulloch have been poring over their own data, as well as the information they receive from the two-car Capco team, which is in position to clinch the 2018 Top Fuel title this weekend with primary driver Steve Torrence.
"Dom tried some new things on the clutch on his Magic Dry Absorbent Top Fuel Dragster at the last race in Charlotte, and we run the exact same clutch. So basically we are using what he learned in Charlotte and are going to apply that to our car this weekend," Palmer said. "That alone should pick up our performance. Between that, the info we share with Steve's CAPCO team, which has won four straight races, and any change of luck the guys may conjure up, we'll be good. It's not like we've had bad luck. It's just we haven't had any good-luck breaks. We'll keep working hard and we'll get it."
Palmer is on his way – at 11th Friday and two more passes Saturday.
SEMA TO SERVE LEGENDS FOR BREAKFAST – Drag-racing champions and legends Kenny Bernstein, Joe Amato, Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, and John Force will headline Wednesday’s NHRA Breakfast at the SEMA Show here at Las Vegas.
“To have [them] on one stage is a very rare occurrence,” announcer Brian Lohnes, who will be the panel moderator, said. “This is the perfect way to cap the year-long build up to the 2019 Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals. Between the history of the racers, their performances at the Gators, and their personal history together, there will be a lot of great stories and laughs.”
The March Gatornationals at Gainesville, Fla., will celebrate its 50th birthday with a gathering of NHRA legends. For now, the NHRA Breakfast at the SEMA Show will be from 7:30-9 a.m. at the Westgate Las Vegas Casino Paradise Events Center. It is open to all registered SEMA Show attendees at no cost. However, tickets are required for the continental-style breakfast. To order event tickets or register for the show, visit www.SEMAShow.com/register and click Add Event Tickets.
FOR HAWAIIANS WHO CAN’T BE AT LAS VEGAS – Pro Stock Motorcycle racer Steve Johnson is at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway this weekend, but he’s also on television Friday night throughout the Hawaiian Islands. He’s a special guest on PunishUM Motorsports’ October show that airs at 9:30 p.m. station KFVE. PunishUM Motorsports’ sponsors are NAPA, Kalitta Air, East Bay Tire Co., and Ron's Performance. Johnson, in his inimitable way, will be explaining how to control a Pro Stock bike at speeds nearly 200 miles an hour. The show also will feature the Honolulu edition of SPOCO, the car-show extravaganza that bills itself as “the nation’s largest consumer exhibit and show focusing on the culture surrounding young adults.” Tracy Arakaki is host of the long-running PunishUM Motorsports program.