2018 NHRA U.S. NATIONALS - FUNNY CAR NOTEBOOK
SUNDAY NOTEBOOK - TODD GOES BACK-TO-BACK AT U.S. NATIONALS
The list of drivers who have accomplished that feat at the U.S. Nationals is short, but impressive. Among them are names such as Don Prudhomme, Don Garlits and Ed McCulloch.
And now, J.R. Todd.
Todd earned his second-straight victory at the world’s biggest drag race on Monday, defeating Matt Hagan in the finals at the 64th annual Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway, further etching his name into the history books at the race known to many simply as the “Big Go.”
“This is a dream come true. You don’t know if you are ever going to win Indy, let alone go back-to-back. And, for whatever reason, this year has just felt different,” said Todd, who earned his 14th career win and fifth behind the wheel of a Funny Car. “It has just felt like we had a car that could come in here and win. Last year the confidence wasn’t there like it is this year. We tested really well here last week and that definitely carried over to this race. We came out of the gate swinging Friday night and then made some really good runs in the heat throughout the weekend which gave us good notes and data for today.”
Todd dominated the weekend from start to finish, earning his first-career Funny Car No. 1 qualifier on Friday and following that up with top-five runs in each successive qualifying round.
On Monday, Todd marched through a tough field before meeting up with Hagan in a matchup of the two most recent U.S. Nationals victors in Funny Car. On an extremely slick track that had proven tricky for both nitro classes throughout the weekend, Todd got the jump and held that lead throughout in earning back-to-back wins at Indy for the first time since Mike Neff in 2011 and 2012.
Todd crossed the stripe with a 4.062-second pass at 311.70 mph in the DHL Toyota Camry Funny Car to earn his third win of the year while at the same time moving into the top five in the Countdown to the Championship standings with six races remaining. Hagan, in attempting to earn his second U.S. Nationals win, came up short with a 4.141 at 300.60 mph.
“We had a way better car this year than last year. We made some big runs throughout qualifying and had a car that was right there with the top contenders in the class,” Todd said. “Now we feel like we can run with those guys where, a month or so ago, we weren’t so sure. These Funny Cars, even on a super glued track, are a huge challenge. You throw in the track prep deal and they are a handful. There are times you cross the finish line completely sideways. We are talking about inches keeping that thing in the groove and if you get half a tire out one way or the other it is going to smoke the tires.
“We were fortunate enough today to keep that thing stuck down the middle. We had it dogged up a little bit, but in my mind we still went out there and threw down compared to the other guys. Hopefully that is a good sign of things to come for us going into the Countdown.”
With temperatures hovering in the high 80s and low 90s and a track that rarely dipped below triple digits, the event quickly turned into a driver’s race as many of the competitors were forced to get up on the wheel and work the throttle to advance.
Only a handful of drivers made good, clean runs throughout the day, with Todd being one of them. Todd had passes of 4.045, 4.160 and 3.996 in the rounds leading up to the final, eliminating Tommy Johnson Jr., Robert Hight and Jim Campbell along the way.
Hight and Johnson proved the toughest outs for Todd, as Hight hammered the tree, but went up in smoke just one run after making the quickest pass of the day - a 3.985 - in round one. In the semifinal both Todd and Johnson made full pulls - one of the few side-by-side runs under power on Monday - with Todd taking the win in a back-and-forth affair with a 4.045 to a 4.130.
Hagan eliminated Shawn Langdon, Courtney Force and Jonnie Lindberg in reaching his sixth final of the season.
“I don’t think we had a dominant car, but we were good,” Todd said. “TJ made some really good runs in the heat. Courtney made some good runs and in the back of my mind I knew there were other teams that could go out there and outrun us,” Todd said. “Robert Hight went out there and ran a 98 first round and I fully expected that to be a bigtime matchup second round, but the track really seemed to go away for everyone that round. I blew the tires off and was fully expecting him to drive by me any second and I look up and my win light is on. It surprised me.
“Then against TJ, those guys ran really well in testing and that team is turning a corner and you can never count out Matt Hagan and Dickie (Venables). They have won championships and this race before. I didn’t know what to think in the final round and when I saw the win light come on, I was like, ‘you have to be kidding me.’”
With the tuning prowess of Jon Oberhofer and Todd Smith, Todd put together a weekend to remember in earning a statement win, especially after the team struggled through much of the summer months.
“I am so happy to get this win. The Funny Car division is so tough to win. We came out really strong in the spring and really fell off in the summer and, before this race, we made some really big changes,” Todd said. “We are going back to the old ways of running the DHL Camry and it really has my confidence up as a driver. I was in a bad mood for like two months. We weren’t doing that well and I was snapping at the guys. My mood just wasn’t where it should have been.
“Then we come out here and perform the way we did. I don’t think I have been this happy throughout an entire weekend at a national event. I felt from day one we could come out here and win and here we are.”
With the win, Todd climbs from sixth up into the top five in the Countdown to the Championship, a personal goal he had set for himself entering the season. Courtney Force locked up the top seed in the Countdown, while Todd’s teammate Langdon and Tim Wilkerson locked up the final spots in the Countdown on Monday.
“Last year we started off eighth in the Countdown and this year I wanted to be in the top five,” Todd said. “We didn’t want to start off in a big hole like we were in last year and now we feel like we have a better shot going for a championship. Now we have to go out there and be smart and turn on as many win lights as we can on race day over the next three months and see what happens.”
SUNDAY NOTEBOOK - INDY FUNNY CAR SHOW GETS HISTORIC
HISTORY MADE - Last year, J.R. Todd broke through with a career-defining win at the U.S. Nationals just a few months removed from a switch from Top Fuel to Funny Car.
On Sunday, Todd again made history by becoming only the 19th driver in NHRA history to get a No. 1 qualifier in both Top Fuel and Funny Car, earning his very-first top qualifier award in the DHL Toyota at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway.
“I was confident coming into here after the way we tested here last week. The car really ran well on Wednesday and Thursday and picked right up Friday night in qualifying,” Todd said. “We had a little hiccup on Saturday, but other than that, the car was going down the track making great runs that are competitive. I think that Jon (Oberhofer) and Todd (Smith) finally have a handle on things and we’ve got some good notes to look back on for tomorrow.”
Todd took his first-career Funny Car No. 1 with a 3.910-second pass at 325.45 mph Friday night. But what proved most impressive is that, while Friday’s chart-topping lap occurred during the best conditions of the weekend, Todd and his team backed it up with top five runs in each successive qualifying session.
Todd capped the three-day qualifying marathon with the quickest pass in the fifth and final session on Sunday.
“Today was definitely a productive day in getting our setup ready for tomorrow,” Todd said. “I was expecting a few more guys, maybe even Courtney (Force), to be in that area as well. A lot of people seemed to be struggling down track and ours held on to make a good run and be low of the session.
“It was getting a little stressful wondering if the No. 1 was going to hold until today. I am glad that it worked out.”
That sentiment was echoed by Todd’s crew chief, Jon Oberhofer.
“We have been listening to the car, or it has been listening to us. Either way, Todd and I have been enjoying the challenge and it has been a pleasure turning on the car,” Oberhofer said. “It has been a lot of fun. We tested well in Indy, and it showed today. I am really looking forward to tomorrow.”
With the favorable start, Todd will face Jim Campbell in round one on Monday with an opportunity to advance up the ladder into the top half of the championship standings in the final race before the Countdown begins.
“If we win the race, the points will fall into place. I just want to be inside that top five when the Countdown starts to give us a better shot at making a run at the championship,” Todd said. “I think we can get up there around third if things go our way.”
But before Monday’s unique opportunity to go back-to-back at the U.S. Nationals, Todd will take a few moments to enjoy this moment and what it means to accomplish a feat achieved by so few in the sport.
“I had a fan come by earlier today and said that he would be standing on an area of the stage tomorrow wanting my green hat. I don’t think I am going to give that one away,” Todd said with a laugh. “This is right up there with getting a trophy here on Monday. It’s a pretty big accomplishment to be on a select list with drivers that have done it in both categories. That is a really cool accomplishment for me.”
TO RACE OR NOT TO RACE - The U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway is not just the biggest race of the year because of the history, it’s also the biggest because it serves as the final race in the Countdown to the Championship.
With extra points on the line this weekend, teams have a unique opportunity to make extra gains in their championship chase. It could spell the difference in leading the points, entering the final six races in the top half of the field, or even making the field altogether.
For drivers like Tim Wilkerson, nerves are extra high as he tries to hold on to the final spot in the top 10 against the likes of a red-hot Bob Tasca and Shawn Langdon.
But where there are gains to be made with the extra points, there are also major losses at stake as well. With points being deducted this season for any incident that results in oil on the track or the clipping of a timing block, drivers have to carefully walk the line when it comes to all-out performance and making clean, safe runs to avoid unnecessary penalties.
And it are those potential pitfalls that Wilkerson feels may result in tough decisions this weekend.
“I simply can’t afford to have an oildown,” said Wilkerson matter-of-factly. “They really need to rethink the whole program because it is a deterrent to doing well. For example, we have a pretty good car, but it put a hole out (Saturday) so I just shut it off. I could have run a four-second run, but I was not going to take a chance at doing that basically because of oildown points.
“I guess we will see how things progress this weekend. I mean, if Tasca happens to get beat before me, I may not even run the car. I don’t think that’s right, that’s not good for the fans. But I have to look at the big picture that if I oil the track and hit a cone at the same time, if I get dinged with both of those, he could potentially pass me even if he gets beat and I move on.
“It is asinine really and not fair to the fans. We used to get a freebie every 25 runs and now that has gone away. Now we get all of the penalties, but no bonuses and it really doesn’t seem right. At the end of the day, we all live under the same rules, but if we politic a little bit, maybe we can get that changed.”
And, hopefully, it won’t come down to that.
Wilkerson had a strong run on Friday, placing the Levi, Ray and Shoup Ford Mustang Funny Car fifth on the ladder while putting down strong passes in the heat both Saturday and Sunday, setting the team up nicely for Monday.
“The last four or five races we have had a pretty good car. The LRS car has been really nice and it is continuing through this weekend,” Wilkerson said. “The weather is really playing into whether we can really step on it hard. It is very, very hot and sticky out there and that Friday night run was crucial. Unfortunately, Tasca did a little better than us, but we are earning those points back. We just need to stay ahead of him the rest of the weekend.”
But one thing Wilkerson has going for him this weekend over his competition is a previous win at the world’s biggest drag race. Wilkerson won the 2003 U.S. Nationals from 15th on the ladder in a battle of two of the lowest qualified finalists ever at Indianapolis over ninth-place qualified Johnny Gray.
“We had a good car that weekend, we just missed the good qualifying session. And when you do that it puts you behind in the schedule,” Wilkerson said. “The first year i came here in ‘96 and we got beat in the finals by (Whit) Bazemore, but we beat John Force, Randy Anderson, Chuck Etchells, big names back then. Then when we finally won the race we had a good car all day and ended up beating Johnny Gray in the finals.
“The next day we were servicing the car and Bob Glidden came over and said, ‘hey Wilk, that was a really good job you did there. Now nobody can say you ain’t a racer now that you have won the big one.’ That was pretty cool. We really enjoy coming here because it is close to home and it makes for a big deal when we do well.”
‘KID, YOU CAN RETIRE NOW, YOU WON INDY’ - “Kid, you can retire now, you won Indy.”
Those are the words that stand out most when Robert Hight thinks back to his very first U.S. Nationals victory back in 2006. So who said those infamous words that still stick with Hight to this day?
None other than the legend Don Garlits.
“It is hard to explain until you are actually racing and doing this what it’s like to win here. It’s easy from the outside to think that it’s just another race, but it isn’t,” Hight said. “It means so much to everyone out here competing. I remember backing up from my burnout in that first final round here and my knee was shaking. I was like, ‘I better gather myself and get it together otherwise we are not going to win this thing.’ Here I am racing Whit Bazemore, a great racer, and we get the job done.
“The next day, Don Garlits is staying at the same hotel as us, he says, ‘kid you can retire now. You won Indy.’ It was a great moment, but I was like, ‘no, I am going to win as many times as you have at Indy.’ I want to keep doing this and I want to win this race again.”
And win it again he did.
In all, Hight has three wins at the “Big Go,” adding victories in 2008 and 2013.
So what would it mean to earn a fourth Wally at Indy, putting him into a tie with team boss John Force and Larry Dixon?
“It would be awesome. In Funny Car, you are up there with the Bernsteins and Don Prudhomme and Ed McCulloch. Those guys are legends and, man, I would I love to join them,” Hight said. “Winning this race is as big as winning a championship. You wouldn’t want to go down in your career and not have an Indy win. If you had to pick just one race to win, obviously, you are going to pick Indy.”
But it won’t be easy. Hight finds himself qualified eighth, one of his worst qualifying positions ever at the U.S. Nationals. And with a slick track and blazing conditions forecasted for Monday, Hight says that the race will be in the hands of the drivers. And he wouldn’t have it any other way
“Bright sunshine, no clouds, hot, I feel like it is going to be a driver's race,” Hight said. “I think you are going to see some pedaling. It is slick out there and I am going to be ready for it. You have to have confidence in yourself. I feel like I can drive with the best of them and I am ready to do this.”
Hight will face John Force in round one.
MARATHON, NOT A SPRINT - You wouldn’t typically associate the descriptor “endurance racing” with an NHRA drag race.
After all, the races are measured in seconds and an entire race for a professional winner often takes place in less than a minute.
But drag racing is much more than three-second passes and short spurts in the cars. There are hours of tuning, complete engine overhauls, appearances, autographs sessions, and the list goes on and on. And at the U.S. Nationals, those numbers often double.
There is an extra day of racing. There are more fans and more sponsors. Everything is bigger. And, sometimes, it can take its toll.
But that is exactly why the U.S. Nationals is called the “Big Go.”
“I love this race and I hate this race,” said Tommy Johnson, driver of the Riley Children’s Foundation Dodge Charger Funny Car. “It is a marathon. You can’t get wrapped up in all of the stuff and the problem many have is that you have to learn how to manage this race. It is such a long and grueling race. There are so many more things going on here, and the weather isn’t helping. You have to learn how to manage it all. Over the years, I have learned how to do that. My routine is not the same at this race as it would be at a normal race. But I’ve learned how to manage it better.”
And that he has.
On Saturday and Sunday, Johnson blocked out all of the distractions and put down several solid runs in the heat of the day, including the quickest pass of the day on Sunday in Q4 at 3.977 seconds at 319.07 mph and the second quickest time over the four warm-weather sessions. Overall, Johnson is the only driver to produce two three-second passes in the heat and has three total sub-fours for the weekend.
Qualifying fourth, Johnson will face teammate Ron Capps in round one on Monday in a battle of two drivers seeking their first-career U.S. Nationals win.
His previous best finish at Indianapolis was as runner-up in 2002.
“We have really found our sweet spot lately. We can run pretty decent when it is better conditions and we can run pretty good when it is not,” Johnson said. “That run (on Sunday) I was super happy with. That kind of set the tone for us because the conditions on Monday are going to be like today.”
But while the biggest drag race in the world is already a marathon, Johnson admits that he is relieved not to have the extra races that typically would fall during this weekend. This is the first year that the Traxxas Nitro Shootout hasn’t taken place in several years, allowing his team to focus on getting ready for Monday and not worrying about trying to win two races in one weekend.
“It definitely let a little pressure off,” Johnson said. “It threw a little more pressure into an already pressure-packed event. I certainly miss it, but at the same time i think it is going to make this race a little easier this year.”
Now all that is left is for the drivers to get behind the wheel and go to war on Monday in, what many believe, will be a driver’s race.
“I think there is a group of guys that will rise to the occasion when it is maybe a pedal fest or a finesse race or a precision run where you need to keep it in the center,” Johnson said. “I think there is a split. I think it widens the gap between close competition. There are some guys that you know are going to be pretty good and I think, like our team, excel in those conditions. So, yeah, I hate the heat, but I’m not too mad that it is here.”
WINNERS - Seven U.S. Nationals victories and 18 Funny Car world championships will be represented in round one on Monday when John Force Racing teammates Robert Hight and John Force square off.
Force qualified ninth with a weekend-best pass of 4.003 seconds at 320.89 mph as he faces Hight for only the second time all year. Force is 1-0 against the defending series champion in their previous meeting.
FROM ZERO TO HERO - To this day, Matt Hagan remembers what it was like when he first began racing.
In those early years, when he was just a youngster trying to make a name for himself alongside the kings of the sport, Hagan couldn’t give his autograph away. No one was stopping by his pits. He was a nobody. And he remembers what that was like.
“I remember trying to give autographs away (in those early years) and people were like, ‘I don’t want it.’ It has changed a lot since then,” Hagan said. “It is why I still stay out here. A lot of drivers hide and don’t come out, especially when it gets hot. I really try to stay out here with my fans because I remember when nobody wanted my autograph. It is very humbling. That is why it is so important to me to take care of our fans.”
But boy how things have changed. Walking the pits at any NHRA event today you will see kids and adults alike donning Matt Hagan gear, holding diecast cars of his Mopar Express Lane Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat, and waiting in line for autographs.
On Sunday, in a moment unnoticed by television cameras and never-to-be-mentioned in magazines and newspapers, Hagan spotted a young boy sporting a Matt Hagan shirt and hat, eagerly awaiting an autograph. Hagan ran into his trailer and grabbed a cylinder head and signed it for the young fan. For more than an hour, in the absolute heat of the day, Hagan stood at the back of his trailer, signing autographs for hundreds of fans. Why? Because he remembers when no one knew who he was.
“My fans are everything. They buy the products, support the sponsors and, at the end of the day, it is all about the kids,” Hagan said. “Putting a smile on a kids face or giving them a part or piece is what it’s all about. You build a fan for life. I mean, we are here, the people are here, why not take the time to come out and make these kids smile.”
On the track, Hagan is sitting pretty in the third spot on the ladder entering Monday’s eliminations. The 2016 U.S. Nationals champion produced when it mattered most during Friday’s hero run with a 3.943-second pass at 324.05 mph and has spent the past two days tuning the car preparing for a very hot and very slick race day.
And he is doing it all sporting a brand new Hellcat body designed to provide better downforce for the Dodge teams while also proving a bit safer than the previous body.
“So far so good. We are obviously making a lot more downforce (with the new body). (Jack) Beckman went 90-flat in testing and we went 94 the other night with it. Anytime you change something there are going to be some adjustments to get used to,” Hagan said. “For us, we came off two back-to-back wins with the old body and then we put the new one on and we are like, ‘great, now we are struggling.’ Thankfully, it’s not been so much that we are struggling, it is that we went to the west coast and jacked the tuneup up and, little by little, we are trying to find that center and base again.
“I am happy with the car so far. The tuneups have changed a little bit, but the body has been great and the drivability is going to be safer and it is structurally stronger. It has taken us a little bit to get to this point, but when we finally figure these things out, watch out.”
Hagan will race Jonnie Lindberg in round one on Monday.
FEELING HOT, HOT, HOT - Dejected and disappointed in her team’s performance Friday night during the hero session where her team typically shines the brightest, Courtney Force entered Saturday determined to make up for the gaffe.
Sitting 11th after one of five qualifying hits at the track, Force turned the corner in a big way on Saturday with a time that was, not only quickest of the day, it was quickest of the next two days.
While that 3.959-second pass at 325.69 mph from Saturday afternoon may not seem like much, moving the top overall seed in the Countdown to the Championship only up to sixth, it showed that Force’s car is capable of big things in the heat and sets her team up nicely for a shot at her very first U.S. Nationals crown.
“It was an important run. We struggled a little bit the first couple of runs in qualifying and got it turned around and ran that 3.95 which put us in a pretty good position,” Force said. “We picked up some bonus points for being the quickest in the session and moved up to the top half of the field. I think it is good that it happened on Saturday, because we were able to focus the rest of the weekend on the heat and getting ready for Monday.”
In all, the Force family has six total wins at Indy - four by team patriarch John and two by Ashley Force-Hood - and in all John Force Racing have accumulated quite a collection of Wallys at the sports biggest race. If Courtney can win on Monday, she will become the fifth different driver to win the U.S. Nationals under the JFR banner.
“We are going to take what we learned Saturday and Sunday and use it on Monday and see if we can continue to get this car running a little bit stronger in the heat,” Force said. “I think we made some good runs in the heat over the past two days and that is going to be important for tomorrow. Now we just have to wait and see how it all shakes out.”
Force will have a tough challenge on Monday in round one, facing most recent race winner Jack Beckman in round one.
OOZING HISTORY - Imagine, if you will, driving at the world’s biggest and most prestigious race, driving for one of the legends of the sport, all while sporting a sponsor celebrating its historic 100th anniversary.
No pressure, huh?
That is the weekend in a nutshell for Jim Campbell, who entered the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals driving for the legend Jim Dunn with sponsor Oberto celebrating its 100th anniversary. While it all may seem a bit overwhelming, for Campbell, he considers it the opportunity of a lifetime.
“It is awesome. It is the 64th U.S. Nationals and it is amazing to drive for a legend who has been around so many U.S. Nationals,” Campbell said. “The last thing you want to do is not qualify at the U.S. Nationals, the biggest race of the year. You also don’t want to not qualify for “big” Jim Dunn. We all strive for that out here. The biggest thing is to get in the show.”
And what a nailbiter it was for Campbell to make that field.
In a juggling act between four different drivers trying to fill the final two positions on the ladder, Campbell entered Sunday in the bump spot, dropped out of the field in Q4, and then, in the final qualifying pass of the weekend, jumped back into the 16th and final qualifying position in a thriller of a run. Campbell’s car was all over the racetrack, slipping from side-to-side, but produced just enough to cross the stripe with a 5.06 to lock himself into the field.
“It wasn’t pretty, but we got it done,” Campbell said. “For most of the weekend it was horrible for most of the cars going down the track. It was hot, humid, the track was not holding really well. We just needed to go out and make a solid run from A to B. It wasn’t the run we wanted, but we went from A to B and we are in the show.”
But that might not be the end to this feel-good story.
Just one year ago Campbell was in the same position, just making the field in the 16th position before knocking off No. 1 qualifier Matt Hagan in round one. It wasn’t a pretty win, but it was a win nonetheless and just further proves that in the world of nitro racing, anything can happen.
“On race day you never know what is going to happen when you stomp the throttle on these things,” Campbell said. “I’m one of the newer drivers on the circuit and there is no doubt you get a little bit of butterflies when you are racing against the best in the world, but at the same time you have a job to do out there. I have to do my job as a driver and cut a light, keep the car in the groove, the crew has to do their job making the tuneup go down the track and between that and the little things, hopefully we go rounds tomorrow.”
JUST A BIT OUTSIDE - Terry Haddock just missed making the field in what turned into a thrilling back-and-forth game between four drivers trying to occupy the final two spots.
Haddock, Bob Bode, Jim Campbell and Justin Schriefer rotated shifts on the bump spot over three days of qualifying, with Haddock occupying every position possible in the bottom four, including being on the bump spot twice, and entered the fifth and final session with a real shot at making the field.
But in Q5, Campbell ran a slow and steady 5.068 to knock Haddock outside the field and he was unable to recover. With one final opportunity to make the field, Haddock ran into trouble following his burnout and the team was forced to do a rush-job in repairing it while Del Worsham waited at the tree. Haddock bumped into the lights, but immediately went up in smoke, leaving him 17th with a weekend-best 5.311 at 151.60 mph.
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK - HONORING LEGENDS AND REPECTING THE HISTORY
EMOTIONAL MOMENT - Moments before making his first qualifying pass of the weekend Friday night at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals, Bob Tasca and his team unveiled a special livery designed to honor the late Bob Glidden based on Glidden’s 1987 championship winning Pro Stock Ford Thunderbird.
With Glidden’s family surrounding the car, the team pulled back the sheet covering the car on the starting line to reveal the iconic red and white design as Tasca then proceeded to power his 2018 Ford Mustang Funny Car to his best qualifying effort since 2013 with a second place run at 3.928 seconds at 322.65 mph.
It was an emotional moment, not only for the Glidden family, but for Tasca who called it one of the greatest moments of his career.
“It was easily one of the highlights of my racing career to be able to run in a car with Bob Glidden’s name. And then Rusty Glidden and Billy Glidden reached in and they shook my hand right before they started the car up,” Tasca said. “I get goosebumps right now thinking about it. If you don’t believe there is a heaven, if you don’t believe people are looking down on you, I’m telling you, I could feel Bob Glidden with me in that car.
“What a run for our team. What a way to start off. We knew we had it in us. We had a great test session here last week. But that is one run. We have a bunch more ahead of us. This team has got a lot of confidence and I’ve got the legend on the side of my car this weekend.”
Even on Saturday, with two more runs under his belt, the weight of his Friday night pass remained with him as he feels that the moment was destined and could lead to big things this weekend.
“You couldn’t have written the script any better. I mean, I guess we could have been number one, but it is exactly what we wanted the car to run,” Tasca said. “Eric (Lane) went up there to run a 92 or a 93, we weren’t trying to run an 88 or a 90, and the car ran a 92. When a crew chief can predict what the car is going to run it gives me confidence sitting in there. To make that run after unveiling the car, under the lights in Indy, I don’t know how much better it gets than that.”
But the weekend isn’t over.
While the second-place qualifying effort will most likely stick, Tasca has two more qualifying sessions on Sunday to tune the car for Monday. And a big weekend could lead to big things as Tasca sits 11th in the championship standings coming into the weekend looking to upset the field and earn his way into the Countdown to the Championship with points-and-a-half on the line this weekend.
“Saturday and Sunday will be more important than (Friday) night. Those will be the conditions that we will run in on Monday and we will see what these boys behind me have in store,” Tasca said. “Trust me, this is a dangerous team right now. I’ve never driven better in my career. If they give me a hot rod that can go from A to B, we have a real shot to win this thing.”
THE BIG GO - You’ve heard the nicknames ad nauseam.
The Big Go. The biggest drag race in the world. Indy.
The descriptors, the buzz, the stories telling us what it means to be a U.S. Nationals champion, it almost makes you numb to the history it is repeated so often.
And then it happens. You talk to a driver. You see it in their eyes. You hear it in their voice. And then you remember that it is all much more than buzzwords and marketing hype. The U.S. Nationals, the biggest, richest and most prestigious drag race in the world, just means more.
“As a kid that grew up around the sport of drag racing, it doesn’t take very much to remind myself that this is the U.S. Nationals,” said Ron Capps, driver of the NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car. “I hear people get introduced at different events, drag racers that have never won championships, but they are Indy winners and that is how they get introduced wherever they go. There are people who have won championships that are introduced as a U.S. Nationals champion before being mentioned as world champion. I think that tells you how big a deal this is.”
And Capps knows a thing or two about big moments.
A 60-time national event winner and the 2016 Funny Car world champion, Capps has seemingly done it all in the sport of drag racing. Everything, of course, except winning the U.S. Nationals.
In dozens of tries, Capps has never won the biggest race of the year, earning a career best result of runner-up at Indianapolis last year. So for a man who has won nearly every other race on the tour and a thrilling championship just two years ago, you would think he might be content with his career if it ended right now.
“Prior to my 2016 championship, I actually said that I thought (a win at Indy) would be as big as a championship. And I still don’t know that it won’t be,” Capps said. “Winning a championship is great. But right now, I still think it would be as big as winning a championship to win here. It just brings something out in you. I never throw my helmet, but yet I have done it a couple of times and let emotions out that I would never do and it has always been at the top end of this race track. You just can’t control yourself at this place. You forget about everything else in the world but this race and when you have a chance to win it and don’t, you do things you would never do at any other race.”
If Capps is going to check this race off his bucket list this weekend, he is going to have to overcome quite a bit to get it done.
During the one and only night session of the weekend, Friday’s “hero session” as it is referred in the pits, Capps and his team missed the mark and found themselves qualified in the bottom half of the field. And with that being the only session under the lights with the preferential conditions, Capps may move up, but he won’t move up much, leaving the team preparing for an uphill battle come Monday.
But underdog? Don’t tell that to Capps.
“For a lot of people, it would be a little more heartburn (struggling in qualifying). But I’ve learned the hard way never to doubt the crew chiefs. I have gotten to work with some of the best racer crew chiefs in history. When you look back at the Roland Leong, Ed McCulloch, Tim Richards, and of course now Rahn Tobler, these are all old school guys that adapt,” Capps said. “For me, I get more excited only because I look at the conditions and I look at what we are going to do and I know Rahn’s mindset is, ‘let’s go steal every three points we can now in the heat.’”
And, in a typical “turn lemons into lemonade” scenario, Capps and his NAPA Auto Parts team actually learned something out of that Friday run that left them on the outside of the top 10 in qualifying for only the fourth time all year.
“The really cool thing about (Friday) is that we learned something from that run that we didn’t catch in testing and it taught us a lesson,” Capps said. “Rahn caught what a lot of crew chiefs may not have caught as quickly, and it is going to pay dividends the rest of the weekend and hopefully Monday afternoon. I am a little more excited than I should be because it really gets us set up nicely for the daytime runs.”
BIRTHDAY BOY - In a weekend filled with special designs and throwback schemes for many of the professional teams in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, Jonnie Lindberg’s Head Racing team unveiled their own special design for this weekend’s Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals.
On Friday, the team unveiled a throwback scheme celebrating team patriarch Jim Head’s U.S. Nationals success, which included a win in Funny Car back in 1984 and in Top Fuel in 1997.
The design, which Head ran in the late 80s, was a surprise for even the team when it was unveiled this week.
“Actually, it was a surprise for me like everyone else,” said driver Jonnie Linndberg. “I saw it yesterday when it came out of the trailer and I was like, ‘ok, this is cool.’ He wanted something different and said, ‘why not copy one of my old cars.’ So he unveiled this look from ‘89.”
And, ironically, the year this design was run on the racetrack was the same year that Lindberg was born. And, even more ironically, Lindberg’s birthday was also on Saturday.
Lindberg celebrated his 29th birthday in the best way possible on Saturday - competing at the world’s biggest drag race. He made two runs on Saturday, but was unable to improve with his 5.043 at 151.58 mph from Friday keeping him 15th on the ladder.
“He had that wrap when I was born back in ‘89. It’s cool and I feel lucky to have this opportunity to drive for him,” Lindberg said. “He is a legend in the sport and when I came here from Sweden, I guess he had been watching me and for him to choose me to drive his car is pretty awesome.”
Lindberg, a well-known tuner as well as an accomplished racer, says that his partnership with Head has led to a unique racing experience that he couldn’t get running for one of the sport’s super teams. He said that driving for a smaller team allows him extra opportunity to work on his own car and dedicate a little more time to on-track performance.
“It’s cool because I almost enjoy tuning the car as much as I do driving them,” Lindberg said. “Here, Jim and Dave, they teach me a lot. I actually tuned a Top Fuel dragster in Finland by myself this year. I couldn’t do that if they hadn’t taught me how it was done.
“Here I am not only the driver, I am still a little bit involved with the car. That is the great thing with this team. If I had been running for a big team, I would be signing autographs and doing sponsor stuff. Here I can focus on the car and learn.”
With another day of qualifying on the docket for Sunday before eliminations on Monday, Lindberg will take full advantage with a little birthday celebration on Saturday with friends and family. Although it won’t be the kind of celebration he would normally enjoy.
“It’s fun, but you can’t go out and party too much because I need to stay sober to drive,” Lindberg said with a laugh. “I have a lot of friends here, I have been here for two years now, and it is always fun to celebrate with them, my family and my crew.”
SURPRISINGLY FAST - No one was more surprised by J.R. Todd’s chart-topping pass Friday night than Todd himself.
Todd has had some success in Funny Car since making the switch to the flopper class from Top Fuel last year, including winning the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals one year ago, but chart-topping laps and strong qualifying efforts have eluded the Kalitta Motorsports team.
But on Friday night, Todd and his team hit on a perfect combination and got everything possible out of the DHL Toyota, rocketing to the top of the charts with a 3.910-second pass at 325.45 mph. If the time holds on Sunday, it will be Todd’s first No. 1 qualifier in Funny Car since debuting with the class in 2017.
“That 91 still surprises me. We haven’t run that in I don’t know how long. After the run I came back and heard Jon (Oberhofer) and Todd (Smith) say that we got all of it. I think that is what they were shooting for and that is what the DHL Toyota had in it,” Todd said. “It’s a big weight off our shoulders. I have been here in the past where I didn’t get in until Q5 and that is really stressful. It is nice to be able to go to work on our race day setup. The night run is just a hero run to get your spot on the ladder and put on a good show for the fans. You have to take advantage of it because that is where you will be able to run the quickest. We did and were fortunate to come out on top.”
Now the team will shift their focus to the warmer conditions and trying to get all they can out of their machine during race-like conditions as Todd tries to repeat as U.S. Nationals champion - something that hasn’t been done in Funny Car since Mike Neff in 2011 and 2012.
“It’s cool to have accomplished that, but you can’t let up at all because now you have a big target on your back,” Todd said. “We want to go out there, repeat, and win again. And with what we did on Friday, now we can focus on getting our stuff ready for Monday.”
Todd continued to flex his muscle on Saturday, running the third and fifth best elapsed times in the heat on Saturday, proving the DHL Toyota one of the most consistent Funny Cars on the property.
THROWING IT BACK - The sport of drag racing was built on the small teams.
The teams without the big budgets and multi-million dollar sponsors. The teams with crews made up of close friends and talented up-and-comers. The teams that celebrate the small moments and don’t get lost in the monotony of the tour. The teams that come to races like the U.S. Nationals with big dreams of doing the impossible.
That is exactly the world of journeyman racer Justin Schriefer and the Justin Schriefer Racing team.
A part-time racer since the mid-2000s, Schriefer started his own operation in 2015 and has reveled in the opportunity to compete alongside some of the biggest Funny Car teams in the sport. And that includes traveling to Indianapolis for the biggest race in the world from his shop in Illinois.
“It’s an adrenaline rush to be running with these big teams knowing that we bring a lot of good stuff to the table,” Schriefer said. “It is hard to run the car quite like they do because we are trying to salvage and keep things where we can make another run. When I come out here, I don’t come here just to pick up qualifying money and go. I want to make all of the runs. It is good for me to be in the seat and it is good for us to get data. That is why I don’t come out as much to the other races. But when I was asked why I wanted to come to Indy, it is because it is Indy. I come out here to compete. It’s the fans, the competition, the name. It is an adrenaline rush.
“All of my guys, they bust their butt and they get tears in their eyes just to see me go down the track and make good runs. They are as much into it as I am. We are just a really passionate team.”
In 2017, at this very race, Schriefer made his career best elapsed time and speed and had consistent runs throughout the weekend before losing in round one to Robert Hight. While it is not exactly the ending he had hoped for, the experience left Schriefer feeling like the team had accomplished something and left the door open for bigger things in the future.
“Last year we had our best-ever run at Indy. It was like bringing the Wally home on a different level,” Schriefer said. “We didn’t go away with our tail between our legs. We were proud to come out here and make all five qualifiers. They said we were one of the fastest Funny Cars for elapsed time average for the U.S. Nationals and that is an accomplishment right there.”
And none of this would be possible without the assistance of other teams.
In a truly unique setup in the world of competitive sport, Schriefer receives a great deal of tuning help and parts from other teams, allowing his team to improve and survive as an independent operation.
“We buy a lot of stuff from Steve Torrence, from Schumacher and others. If it wasn’t for their used parts it would be really hard to even try to stay out here at the level we are trying to stay at,” Schriefer said. “We try to look as professional as everybody out here and we take pride in that. My guys are just proud to be part of all of this and I am proud of my guys.”
And, as if competing at the U.S. Nationals wasn’t enough of a thrill, Schriefer will be welcoming a baby girl in December in another major venture for the driver.
WORKING HIS WAY IN - Shawn Langdon understands there’s very little wiggle room.
Langdon, the past NHRA Top Fuel champion in his freshman season as Funny Car driver, entered this weekend’s Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals ranked ninth in the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series points.
Langdon has qualified for the NHRA’s Countdown to the Championship every full season since he became a professional racer in 2009, as a team driver for Morgan Lucas Racing.
Langdon has a measure of confidence racing in the final event of the regular season. This comes from understanding what his car is telling him.
“Obviously this year there was a lot of changes, a lot of things that were new for me, understanding the car, learning the car, learning how to drive it, learning that when the car does this or that, learning why it did that and how to fix it and how to become a better driver,” Langdon said. “It’s been a constant evolving learning curve for me. And then with the crew chief changes that we had and then bringing in Kurt Elliott working with Nicky, they’ve been doing a really good job.”
Bringing the car to its happy place was crucial for Langdon and the Global Team was crucial for the team in getting hot at the right time.
“We kind of got to a spot on the western swing where we just kind of felt like our setup that we had just wasn’t really working,” Langdon admitted. “I mean it would make okay runs here and there, but we just felt like we couldn’t really keep up with everybody because we just weren’t getting the early numbers that we needed to to keep up with everybody.
“We made some pretty wholesale changes out in Sonoma, Seattle and the car’s responded very well to it. It actually made some really great runs. We just kind of were in a position where everybody had about 15-16 races on us. We’re kind of starting fresh, kind of taking a gamble and so far I kind of feel like the gamble’s paid off, because the last two races, Seattle and Brainerd, we’ve had a really good car, we just lost some really good races. But we just kind of felt like we weren’t really able to push it because were were more interested in gathering the data and the information because we weren’t really going to learn anything if we smoked the tires and got really aggressive with it.”
The baby steps are working well for Langdon and team.
“We’ve just kind of been inching up on it and then when we got out here, we really kind of threw a lot at it, what we think that it needed and it’s responded well,” Langdon explained. “We’ve been making some really good low 3.90 runs. Yesterday we shut them all off at 700 feet and the first run we went 3.96 shut down from 700 feet, so kind of translates out to a low 3.90.
Langdon, just like teammate J.R. Todd, believes the annual pre-Indy test session provides the perfect springboard for the Countdown, which starts in two weeks outside of Reading, Pa.
“The test session was very important to us just for the fact of we kind of have a new setup that we’re rolling with and we just need laps on it just so we can gain more information,” Langdon explained. “Not only just the information but just the information of making good runs, but then also the confidence that the crew chiefs get out of that by making continuous good runs and getting all that data. Just building the confidence that you know what the limits of your car are.
“We didn’t really know what the limits were before. I kind of like what this test session, we’ve been able to kind of push the limits a little bit more to where we know kind of what the threshold of our tuneup is and what the car can run. We’ve definitely opened up the tuning window on it to where the car, you can get away with it if you don’t hit everything just absolutely perfect. Right now it seems like it’s pretty forgiving.”
Langdon stands seventh quickest after three sessions with a 3.959 elapsed time at 325.22. - Bobby Bennett
HIGHS AND LOWS - No one has experienced more of a roller coaster season in 2018 than veteran Funny Car pilot Cruz Pedregon.
From the high of earning his first win since 2014 at the Four-Wide Nationals in Charlotte back in April, to the low of recording only three round wins and a DNQ over the last 10 races, Pedregon has seen it all this season as he entered the U.S. Nationals this weekend 12th in points.
But Pedregon feels that his luck may be turning around.
Two weeks ago in Brainerd Pedregon debuted new chief Tommy DeLago along with a mish-mash of equipment updates that he hopes will pay big dividends for the balance of 2018 - whether in the Championship or not.
“I am hoping some of (DeLago’s) experience helps us out. Even though he is a younger guy, he still has a lot of experience,” Pedregon said. “I think what we need is more in line with what he can bring and that is really just to lead the team and make sure the car is prepared. Our car has a really good setup on it. It has a good combination. When it goes down the track it runs at or near the top. So what he brings is what we need right now. I probably couldn’t pick a guy that fits better in our organization. I’m big on experience and man he has a lot of it.”
Interestingly enough, what Pedregon admits the team needs more than anything is not more speed or more power. It is consistency, he says, this team has severely lacked over the past few seasons.
“We don’t need much to be competitive, to be honest. What we did (Friday) night going down the track, being methodical, that is what we need,” Pedregon said. “With these cars, you can’t try too hard. You can’t try too much. You have to let it come to you. He and I both have that mindset, so I think for right now we are not swinging for big numbers. We are trying to get on base, so to speak, and really let our experience take over and we will see where we wind up.”
And that turnaround begins this weekend as DeLago has already begun his overhaul of the car and the team to set them up nicely for a strong finish to the year.
“We added a new front half on the primary Snap-on Toyota chassis, and we have a brand new back-up chassis ready to go as we prepare for what is the most important race of the season for us as a team,” said DeLago.
TRADITION - It’s a tradition unlike any other.
No, we are not talking about the Masters. We are talking about John Force at Indy.
For nearly four decades, Force has turned a tire at drag racing’s oldest, largest and most prestigious single event, walking away with the big check and shiny trophy four times. In fact, Force’s four U.S. Nationals trophies are part of his NHRA-record 149 national event victories as he seeks elusive win No. 150.
And, at age 69, the 16-time NHRA world champion admits that he is not competing at the 64th annual Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway for any reason other than to win it. He’s not looking to set any age records, he’s not hoping just to go rounds, and he’s certainly not expecting any concessions from his peers, some of whom, like his daughter Courtney, are almost 30 years his junior.
“That’s why we race, to win the championship and to win Indy. Every year,” said Force, who is competing in his 39th U.S. Nationals this weekend. “That’s what motivates me. If I didn’t think I could win, I wouldn’t be out here. I lost for a lot of years. Now that I’m winning, I’m not ready to just walk away. I love this sport and I love these kids (who work on the team). They have a dream that reminds me of myself (when I started. It takes me back.”
Force has won once already this season, winning the Mile-High Nationals at Denver, celebrating at least one NHRA victory in 31 of the last 32 seasons. The only season in which he didn’t win was 2009.
Another streak Force hopes to continue this season is as one of only seven drivers in the four pro categories to have contested every title in the Countdown to the Championship Era (2007-to-the-present) and as a top 10 finisher in each of the last 33 seasons. Force is currently eighth in the championship standings.
“We need to go rounds. If we do our job, everything else will take care of itself,” said Force. “It’s always good to be back at Indy. It’s like home. I grew up in a trailer park and here I am still in a trailer park. The only difference is that these trailers are a lot nicer.”
Finally, paying homage to the event and team sponsor, Force will be chasing this weekend’s Wally in a specialty Chevrolet Accessories PEAK Camaro SS Funny Car celebrating Force’s 16 Funny Car championships.
RILEY’S KIDS - With the added spotlight placed on the world’s biggest drag race, many NHRA teams take advantage of the extra attention with major announcements, special unveilings and brand new designs.
For Tommy Johnson Jr., who usually dons the Make-A-Wish Foundation on the side of his Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car, he will be doing just that this weekend. Unveiled earlier in the week, the team will feature a new look at this weekend’s U.S. Nationals with the red and white paint scheme of the Riley Children’s Foundation donning the side of the car.
Each year Johnson and other members of the Don Schumacher Racing team visit the hospital, located in downtown Indianapolis, and hold special events to raise money and bring awareness to the organization known as Riley’s Kids, Indiana’s nationally ranked children’s hospital and a leading pediatric research hospital in the state.
“It would be great to go out there and put the Riley car in the winner’s circle,” said Johnson, who has donned the special Riley livery each year since 2014. “It’s always fun to run the Riley car living here in the Indianapolis area. Going to visit the kids during the week and representing them on the track and raising awareness for what a great hospital we have here in Indy, it would just be great to put that car in the winner’s circle and hopefully have a bunch of Riley Kids right there with us.”
Johnson, who is winless in two finals in 2018, entered the weekend tied for sixth in points, but hopes to got a few rounds and set himself up nicely in advance of the Countdown for the Championship as he seeks his first-ever win at the sport’s biggest race.
“Indy is the biggest drag race of the year, and with the way our car is running right now, I’m as confident as ever,” Johnson said. “We had a great test session last week, ran really well, an with two semifinals and a final the last three races, I think the momentum is starting to swing our way.”
BEST FOR LAST - There is just something special about J.R. Todd and the U.S. Nationals.
The defending race winner at the “Big Go” in Funny Car, Todd continued with the hot hand with his first No. 1 qualifier of the year and the fourth of his career Friday night at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway.
In the one and only scheduled night session of the weekend, Todd blasted to the top spot with a 3.910-second pass at 325.45 mph in a great side-by-side run with Matt Hagan, who qualified third.
And the funny thing is, the team didn’t see it coming.
“(The team) were worried they were going up there not tuned up enough just because of the weather. I’m guessing the air got better as the night went on which kind of tunes the car for you,” Todd said. “They think they got all of it, which means that is the best they could have run. That is good to hear. This was great for us because it is going to be hot the rest of the weekend and it is going to be hard for teams to improve on what they did tonight.”
IT’S THE FINAL COUNTDOWN - The stage is set.
The time for talking is over.
Now is the time for the drivers to take to the track and put it all on the line.
Not only is Lucas Oil Raceway home to the biggest drag race in the world, but it has been the site of the final race in the Countdown to the Championship each year except one since the Countdown format was adopted in 2007.
And since then, the race known as the “Big Go” has provided the backdrop, not only for career-defining wins, but also exhilarating victories and agonizing defeats as drivers scratch and claw for the final few spots on the championship battle.
And this year is no exception.
Three drivers sit on the cusp of the Countdown - John Force, Shawn Langdon and Tim Wilkerson - as they try to hold on to a spot in the final 10 with more points on the line this weekend than any other race in the regular season. Just outside of the top 10 are three drivers trying to battle their way in - Bob Tasca, Cruz Pedregon and Jonnie Lindberg.
All six are dreaming of big things this weekend and all three know that any slipup can spell disaster.
“I usually do pretty good at Indy, and our car has been going down the track every run the last few races,” said Tim Wilkerson, driver of the Levi, Ray & Shoup Ford Shelby Mustang. “Now is the time to really have your ducks in a row, so we’re pretty excited. We know that we can be a fast car here, so hopefully we can continue the trend. We’re not going to be lackadaisical about this. Everybody is doing a good job and working hard on the car. We’re coming to Indy and we’re going to fight, fight, fight.”
Wilkerson enters the U.S. Nationals 10th in points with a slim 24-point lead over Tasca for the final spot in the Countdown to the Championship. And he knows a thing or two about surviving and advancing at this race. Just last year Wilkerson advanced to the semifinals at the world’s biggest drag race to clinch his playoff position.
In addition to Wilkerson, 16-time world champion John Force holds a healthy 132-point lead on Tasca. But with the points-and-a-half system in play this weekend - with 150 points going to the winner - anything can happen.
Three-time Indy winner Pedregon is 75-points back of Wilkerson, meaning his playoff chances are still alive, while Jonnie Lindberg has an outside shot. Sitting ninth, 44 points ahead of Wilkerson, is 2013 Top Fuel world champ and former Indy winner Langdon.
MOTHER OF DRAG(ONS) - In the Game of Thrones series, Daenerys Targaryen rules over much of the lands with the aid of her dragons and a loyal army, often crushing the competition swiftly and without mercy.
Much in the way Courtney Force has crushed the competition in Funny Car this season.
In 2018, Force has proven the dominant driver with the aid of crew chiefs Brian Corradi and Daniel Hood, racing to an impressive 10 No. 1 qualifiers, including two streaks of earning the top spot at three consecutive races, six final rounds, four wins and a dominating 195-point lead over second place Ron Capps.
With the regular season already locked up, Force will now shift her focus to putting an exclamation mark on what has already been a season to remember with her first-career U.S. Nationals victory and further momentum entering the six-race Countdown to the Championship.
“I’m really looking forward to this weekend’s Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals. This is the “Big Go,” it’s the biggest race of the entire NHRA season. It feels good knowing that we’re going into the U.S. Nationals from the No. 1 spot with my Advance Auto Parts team,” Force said. “This is a track that we would absolutely love to get a win at. We haven’t made it to a final round at this track in the past, but we’re feeling pretty confident about the race car that we have right now and hoping that this is our year that we can win it.”
Force has qualified well at Lucas Oil Raceway, earning a No. 1 qualifier in 2012, her rookie season, and a pair of third-place starts in 2014 and 2017. But a win, that has eluded her.
But after two strong days of testing entering the weekend, including an impressive 3.88-second pass in the heat on day two, Force is confident that weekend might be different.
“We were really excited to be out there for two days of testing with this Advance Auto Parts Camaro to get us ready,” Force said. “It was huge to help us get this car running more consistently and being able to make the changes we need before getting into race weekend.”
Something to make the weekend even more special for Force and her Advance Auto Parts team, they’ll be racing with the Florida Georgia Line Fest logo on the side of their Camaro SS. The event, taking place this year on Sept. 8th, is sponsored by Advanced Auto Parts.
FULL CIRCLE - This weekend will be a special one for Del Worsham.
For a driver that has literally done it all in the sport, from wins in some of the biggest races in the game, to world titles in both nitro categories, Worsham says it was his days before the big wins and shiny trophies that stand out the most.
From his days as an independent racer in the early 1990s, to big sponsorship deals and championships in both Top Fuel (2011) with Al Anabi Racing and Funny Car (2015) with Kalitta Racing, Worsham longed for the days before the bright lights and big dollars. A time when he and his team was the underdog, clawing and scratching for every round win.
So, in 2017, Worsham returned to his roots, joining his dad along with a small band of former crew members and a number of ultra-loyal associate sponsors, to race once again while taking on the best Funny Car racers in the world.
As the U.S. Nationals approached, Worsham was reflective of his long run in the nitro classes, his stirring “double up” win at Indy in 2005, and his return to his family-operated roots. With a strict budget in place, he has competed at a limited number of events this year, but he knows better than to count himself out at the famed U.S. Nationals.
“Looking back on everything, it’s just kind of startling how much time has passed and how many things have happened over the decades, both good and bad,” Worsham recalled. “We’ve seen the very top in Indy, back when we won the race and the shootout in 2005, and took home close a quarter-million dollars in one weekend. I’ll never forget that.
“The days when we first started with just a little help from a few friends and a whole lot of desire, were priceless too. Without all the learning and challenges we faced in the early 90s, I don’t think the CSK deal would’ve happened for us. We earned that the hard way. And then to grow that program like we did, with the fantastic people at CSK, well that was life changing. To go on to race for Alan Johnson and win the Top Fuel championship, and then have the equal honor of racing for Connie Kalitta and winning a championship for him in Funny Car, it’s hard to put into words what all of that meant.”
In total, Worsham has collected 39 Wallys in the nitro ranks, his last coming at Brainerd in 2016. His last final round came right here at Lucas Oil Raceway that same year. Since then, Worsham has collected just 12 round wins in 33 starts over the past two years, but Worsham was clear that it wasn’t about the performance when he made the move to race with his dad last year.
Although you can never count him out.
“I made it clear after I made the decision to go back to racing with my dad that it was a personal choice. I’d been to the top in both nitro classes, and I wanted to close that loop. It’s been a challenge, just like it was in my early years, and it gets frustrating when the car will throw us a few bones but then act up again. I haven’t stared at the data on the computer screen this much in decades. The last time I was this deep into the data I didn’t need glasses to see it,” Worsham said. “This year has been tough, in a lot of ways, and neither my dad or I like running in the back of the pack or struggling just to qualify. We know how to win, and we work at it hard enough to earn it. We’re coming to Indy to do the best we can. How good is that? Well, the best we can be is a team that can win any race, including the U.S. Nationals.
“We can absolutely do it, and I’m not counting myself out. I’m counting on myself to be solidly in the mix and we’ll give it everything we have to get back up on that winner’s circle stage with the trophy.”
FITTING TRIBUTE - NHRA Funny Car competitor Bob Tasca is honoring the late Bob Glidden with a special red and white paint scheme reminiscent of Glidden’s 1987 Ford Thunderbird Pro Stock championship ride.
Glidden, whose 85 victories rank him fourth all-time among all pro racers, passed away last December 17. This is the first U.S. Nationals meeting without the presence of the Whiteland, Ind., native who won the Indianapolis classic nine times. Glidden is the Pro Stock record-holder for most consecutive final-round appearances at a single event: 13, at Indianapolis (1977-’89).
He still owns NHRA Pro Stock “most consecutive” records for victories (9), victories at a single event (11, NHRA Finals at Ontario/Pomona, Calif.), elimination round-wins (35, 1978-'79), No. 1 qualifying positions (23, 1986-'88), final rounds to start a season (9, 1978), and final rounds (17, 1978). He fell three short of amassing 600 round-wins (597).
FAST - In the sport of drag racing, fast is a word that is thrown around a lot.
In this sport, everything is fast.
But when defining fast in terms of the quickest and fastest cars on the planet, there is fast, and then there is Matt Hagan.
He may no longer carry the designation of the fastest man in the sport, but Hagan is still one of the quickest and fastest in the history of the sport’s biggest race. And his numbers back that up.
Hagan has been No. 1 qualifier at four of the last five U.S. Nationals and five times total since 2010. He is the 2016 event champion and holds the track record for elapsed time and speed at 3.799 seconds at 338.77 mph set last year.
But after an uncharacteristicly topsy-turvy year, Hagan is hoping that a little Indianapolis magic will help right the ship entering the Countdown.
“We changed our motor combination around during the Indy test so I feel like we’ll come out with a new game plan; everything strong,” Hagan said. “We’ve been off a little bit, but after the test session, I feel like we’re headed in the right direction going into the big Indy race and also the Countdown. We’ve got positive vibes rolling into this deal.”
Away from the track, Hagan has been busy this week with a few events near and dear to his heart, meeting with kids at the Riley Hospital for Children in downtown Indianapolis. Each year he and the rest of his Don Schumacher Racing teammates visit with the children at the hospital, all while raising money and awareness to the cause.
Since 2014, Hagan’s teammate Tommy Johnson Jr. has even donned a special Riley livery at this race to help bring additional exposure.
“It’s been a big weekend with Riley Kids. It’s a cause near and dear to my heart, obviously, because I have four kids and couldn’t imagine that helpless feeling if one of them was sick,” Hagan said. “When we go to Riley and visit their kids it really hits home. I want to put a smile on their face more than I want my race car to go fast.”
Currently fifth in the championship standings, Hagan will look to shake off the sting of a rare first-round defeat to Jim Campbell at this race one year ago and get the Mopar Express Lane team facing back in the right direction as they enter the most important time of the year.
“We’ve got a lot coming up,” Hagan said. “Indy is a big race. I’m glad I’ve won it and been able to check it off the list, so no pressure there, but I want to win it again. We’re all greedy like that.”
HOT HAND - Who is the driver with possibly the most to gain in Indianapolis?
It might just be Jack Beckman.
The most recent race winner on the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Tour, having won at Brainerd two weeks ago, Beckman is one of only four drivers to earn a No. 1 qualifying position in 2018 and one of eight drivers to earn a win this season in Funny Car.
But where Beckman really stands to gain - or lose ground - is in the points where any number of scenarios can prove the outcome as the weekend progresses.
“Indy is the convergence of a whole lot of things. It’s obviously the biggest race of the year for us. It’s points and a half, and it’s the last race of the regular season,” Beckman said. “Our Infinite Hero team will go into the Countdown somewhere between second and fifth in points, and to me, that’s not nearly as big a deal as trying to win that trophy from Indy.”
Winner of the U.S. Nationals in 2015, with two other final rounds to his credit in 2008 and 2013, Beckman knows this track as well as any other and is excited for another shot at the “Big Go” against a tough field including rival driver Robert Hight, whom Beckman has faced in all three of his U.S. Nationals final rounds.
But after a strong test, that saw Beckman’s Infinite Hero Dodge prove quickest of all, he is confident that a repeat victory at the sport’s biggest event might just be in the cards.
“I feel like we have an excellent chance. We’re the most recent winners on tour, we had an excellent outing Sunday at Brainerd and left with the trophy,” Beckman said. “Then we went to Indy for a two-day test. Bolted the brand-new Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat body on the car and went right down the track all four runs on Wednesday with the two quickest runs of the day, so I feel like we have as good a chance as any out there.”
OUTSIDE LOOKING IN - There are 18 cars on the property trying to 16 spots in Funny Car, so two drivers will see their dreams come up short over the course of the next two days. On Friday, it was Terry Haddock and Bob Bode left on the outside looking in as both cars crossed the centerline during their runs, disallowing their times. Both Haddock and Bode were also docked points, Haddock for an oildown and Bode for his second centerlane violation of the year.