2018 NHRA U.S. NATIONALS - TOP FUEL NOTEBOOK
MONDAY NOTEBOOK: HOOSIER McMILLEN WINS U.S. NATIONALS TOP FUEL TITLE AT INDIANAPOLIS -
During pre-race ceremonies Monday at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis, CompetitionPlus.com presented Top Fuel owner-driver Terry McMillen the 2018 Mike Aiello “Spirit of Drag Racing” Award. That was a surprise.
Advancing to the final round at the Labor Day classic at Lucas Oil Raceway was not a surprise. Nor was winning the showdown against Doug Kalitta. After all, this was McMillen’s fifth final round of the season in the Amalie Oil Dragster.
The Elkhart, Ind., crowd favorite earned his second career victory and first since last October at Las Vegas. He used a 4.037-second, 300.66-mph pass on the Lucas Oil Raceway 1,000-foot course to deny Doug Kalitta his first Indianapolis victory in three final-round appearances.
Kalitta challenged with a 4.067-second elapsed time at 303.57 mph that came up 0.0069 of a second (about three feet) short. A dropped cylinder late in the run added some unwanted drama for McMillen, who had appeared to be an easy winner.
“This is one I want very badly, so this is a bittersweet ending for this Mac Tools team,” Kalitta said. “I am so proud of their effort and work this weekend. We almost had it."
Kalitta brushed off Leah Pritchett, Antron Brown, and Billy Torrence to reach the 650 round-win plateau and his first U.S. Nationals final in 10 years. And McMillen said he knew Kalitta would be a tough opponent: “Doug had a better record on me than I do on him [13-1 before the run]. He drilled me on the light [.047 for Kalitta to .071].”
But the day belonged to McMillen, who said after breaking a streak of five first-round losses, “It seems like when we get past first round, we go the distance here lately.” He went to the finals at Houston, Charlotte, Topeka, and Norwalk, Ohio.
The journey, though, has been long and dotted with hurdles. (“We were breaking the car. It was blowing up. We struggled,” he said. “I walked away in Charlotte. I said, ‘I can’t do this anymore. It’s not fun. It’s not safe. And I can’t afford this.’”) He clearly was glad he slogged on and hired crew chief Rob Wendland and car chief Bob Peck and built his team of young mechanics. “I’m the most blessed person right now. I won Indy and they can’t take that away from us. And that’s pretty awesome.”
The Hoosier Thunder Motorsports owner said winning at the NHRA’s fabled Labor Day classic, this 64th edition, is “one of the highest compliments you wish you could ever have” and said, “I hope there’s many more of these, but for now, I want my team to enjoy this one, because this is special. Hats off to our entire team for giving us a good car and making it consistent.”
He said, “I’ve always known that this year was going to be a good year. Could I say if I would have scripted it would it be this good? Probably not. This is our fifth final round. That’s pretty phenomenal. If we can get two or three of these in the Countdown, we could be champions.”
No telling how emotional he would be if that were to happen. He said just knowing he was on the verge of capturing the sport’s most prestigious trophy made him a bit sentimental before the last run of the day. “I’m not going to lie. I probably was tearing up, because here it is, the final round at Indy. That doesn’t happen that often. It’s a really difficult task. I put my race face on,” he said, and dedicated himself to “do the things I’m supposed to do.”
He maybe only half-joked that for the final, “the light turned yellow. I closed my eyes and counted till four. And I saw the win light in my lane.”
That win light for McMillen also prevented Kalitta Motorsports from recording its first nitro-class double victory in 14 attempts. JR Todd (4.062 seconds, 311.70 mph) beat Matt Hagan (4.141, 300.60) to win the U.S. Nationals Funny Car trophy for the second consecutive year. A Doug Kalitta victory in Top Fuel would have given Connie Kalitta, Doug’s uncle, a combined 100th triumph as a driver and team owner.
The Countdown field was set in the first round that saw four upsets, eventual No. 10-ranked Scott Palmer pushed from the starting line with an oil pressure problem, and Tony Schumacher’s bid for a record-extending 11th Indianapolis victory end. McMillen advanced at Palmer’s expense.
Gatornationals victor Richie Crampton had struggled through qualifying and started 15th out of 16. That hindered his case for controlling his own destiny. He lost to No. 2 starter Clay Millican and had to wait for the next pairing between first-time top qualifier Mike Salinas and two-time Australian champion Wayne Newby.
Salinas secured his first No. 1 start Sunday but oiled the track during his final qualifying pass. He entered the weekend in 10th place but dropped out overnight, docked 15 points for his mess. But Salinas pedaled his way back into the Countdown lineup as his match with Newby turned into a tire-smoking lurch to the finish line. Salinas knocked Newby from the race and Crampton from the Countdown, clinching the No. 9 berth.
No. 8 Brittany Force lost to surging Antron Brown.
By the second round, the first five ranked drivers and eight of the top 10 were eliminated. Only Kalitta and McMillen moved on to the semifinal round. And they ended up being paired in the showdown.
When in the semifinals McMillen turned the tables on Blake Alexander in the rematch of their Norwalk, Ohio, final-round duel, Wendland said, “The fact the car went down the track on all eight cylinders at 3.97 and 3.96 [seconds] is a miracle right there.”
McMillen and his alligator-themed dragster had a strong bite, despite the heat and humidity and a line-up of stout opponents. He benefited in the opening round from Scott Palmer’s oil-pressure problem at the starting line and advanced on a solo pass. Then he plowed past points leader Steve Torrence and part-time sensation Blake Alexander to meet Kalitta and become only the second No. 13 qualifier to win here, the first since Kelly Brown in 1979.
When the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series’ Countdown to the Championship opens Sept. 13-16 with the Dodge NHRA Nationals at Reading, Pa.’s Maple Grove Raceway, McMillen will be the No. 7-ranked Top Fuel driver. Kalitta is No. 5 in the standings. Steve Torrence will lead the field into the six-race playoff for the second straight season.
Monday provided a celebration of Hoosiers, for Lawrenceburg native Todd drove the DHL Toyota Camry Funny Car into the history books. His victory marked the first time since 2012 that a racer in any pro category has won straight U.S. Nationals finals. Former Funny Car racer Mike Neff, the current crew chief for Tony Schumacher, was the previous one to accomplish the feat.
Other pro-class winners Monday were Tanner Gray (Pro Stock), L.E. Tonglet (Pro Stock Motorcycle), and Stevie Jackson (Pro Modified).
NHRA – U.S. NATIONALS – INDIANAPOLIS
SALINAS ACING HIS ‘TEST YEAR,’ DAKIN WANTS TO SPOIL RIVALS’ DAY, ZIZZO STAYS IN TOP HALF DESPITE GLITCH, SCHUMACHER’S ARM STILL SMARTING, ALEXANDER CONTENT WITH HIS ARRANGEMENT, THREE DRIVERS MISS THE CUT, KINSLEY NOSTALGIC, FORCE CAN MOTIVATE
SALINAS RETAINS CONTROL OF FIELD – Mike Salinas said this is his “test year.” If so, he’s acing it.
After holding onto his first No. 1 qualifying position through five rounds at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis, the San Jose, Calif., businessman called his accomplishment “surreal.” But he said, “We have a game plan to try to do this thing more often. It’s been very pleasurable to be very honest with you. All the guys out there are great. There’s a lot of fast cars. There is no person faster or slower than the other on Monday, this Monday running. It’s pretty awesome to be honest with you. Now my kids can quit harassing me. They’re pretty hard on me.”
Just being here, participating – let alone excelling – on drag racing’s biggest stage delivered the “Wow Factor.”
Salinas said, “The amazing thing about the Indy race is I always got to see it from the outside, but being part of it, it’s a throw-down race. Every run tomorrow will be like this, and that’s why it’s the biggest race in the world – and it’s awesome.”
He set the pace Friday in the first of five qualifying sessions at 3.756 seconds, and no one could trump that in the hot, muggy conditions. Clay Millican came close at 3.762 seconds – six seconds behind. Antron Brown, who has reached the final round at three of the past five races, is third in the order at 3.772 seconds. And Scott Palmer and Steve Torrence follow with identical 3.791s. Leah Pritchett, Tony Schumacher, and T.J. Zizzo round out the top half of the ladder for Monday eliminations.
Salinas’ strategy, he said, is “one round at a time, just like 15 other guys out here. We’re here to win the race and do the best we can. Wherever we wind up, we wind up. It’s been pretty pleasurable as of now, and I think we’ve got something for them. I think we’re going to be good.”
He called 2018 “our test year to race in 2019,” saying, “We understood that we were going to be sort of competitive, but when you hire Alan Johnson, when you have all these other things going on, we’re very serious about what we’re doing. We’re not here to mess around. There’s some great cars here and great guys that have been driving a lot longer than us, but if you don’t dream and you don’t think you can do it, you should stay home. But we’re here to run as hard as we can. It’s amazing to run with Schumacher, and Torrence. These guys, I’ve been watching them for years at home, and it’s like this is awesome. So I’m just happy to be here and running with these guys. So it’s cool, really cool. And I really appreciate that NHRA, everybody that’s been with us, it’s been good. My crew, all these guys have worked their butts off to get this thing done. It’s methodical how we’re doing this. We are going to inch up, inch up and I think we’ll start shining. I think it will be good for us.”
His Scrappers Dragster has a paint scheme dedicated to the late Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen. And he said it might be bringing him some lucky vibs.
“I can still hear the Goose yelling at me. He would call me on Mondays after races and ask me how it felt in the car, what did I feel, what did I do, why did I do this, and mostly get chewed out,” Salinas said with a wistful smile. “He had my best interest at heart, and it was nice. To be honest with you I think he was with me [through qualifying].”
However, Salinas said he won’t be dwelling on Sunday’s achievement: “When I walk out this door, the pole is over for me. So like when I walk out, my guys are going to be all excited, get to wear the green hats, first time for a lot of them. They did this – I didn’t do this. I just got to drive the car. So I’m really proud of my guys. They worked really hard for this. Tomorrow is tomorrow. Let’s go one victory at a time. You take it, don’t get arrogant, stay grounded. Let’s go race. Now it’s race day. Anything can happen tomorrow morning when we fire that car. If it fires, it’s awesome. That’s how we look at it.”
His first test will come against two-time Australian champion Wayne Newby, who fended off three non-qualifiers to capture the bump spot at No. 16.
Salinas said, “We’ve been doing pretty good and we do have a very consistent car. Driver doesn’t know how to lift so often. Other than that, we just want to win, and I think we are going to. We have a good program, we have some of the best people and some of the best parts out here. I honestly believe if another person can do it, we can do it, and that’s it. I’m a goal achiever.”
DAKIN LOOKS TO BE SPOILER – Veteran owner-driver Pat Dakin enters his Commercial Metal Fabricators Dragster at a limited number of NHRA races each year, but traditionally he manages to qualify mid-pack and go a few rounds.
“We’ve got a lot of time to prepare for it,” he said. “It’s all preparation. I’ve got the same guys [crew members] now I’ve had for six year. They all know what they’re doing, and they don’t make any mistakes. They’re just really, really good. The big-dollar guys can’t prepare any better than we do. We’ll go out there and try to ruin their day.”
When he lines up Monday against No. 5 qualifier Steve Torrence, the points leader for the Countdown, Dakin will be making his first start in six races this year and 223rd overall. His best performance in six appearances this year came at Bristol, Tenn., as he beat Dom Lagana in the opening round before Tony Schumacher eliminated him. His most recent appearance was at Norwalk, Ohio, event, where he left with his fifth first-round defeat. But Dakin claimed his only round-win of 2017 here at Indianapolis, against Bob Vandergriff (and lost to Leah Pritchett in the quarterfinals).
The Dayton, Ohio, resident enters this race, he said, because “it’s only two hours away from home, which makes it very convenient. It’s a big race, but it’s just another race., really. It is. They’re all the same. It’s generally the same players, and 90 percent of the time it’s the same winners: the high-dollar, more corporate people. They expect people like me to go out there and ruin their day, which is what I’m here to do. There’s nothing that I like better than taking one of the big dogs out.”
He could do that. He said, “The car this year has performed very, very well. It has done everything we’ve asked it to do. Knock on wood, it’s not hurting much,” Dakin said. “The arsenal is as deep as we’ve ever had. We have four complete motors and a bunch of heads, a bunch of blowers, and a bunch of everything. So we should be fine.”
Dakin has plans to race this fall at St. Louis and Charlotte. He said his team has “been bugging me to go west,” perhaps to Dallas or Las Vegas or Pomona. “We’ll see what happens next,” he said.
Dom Lagana, Scott Palmer, and Terry Haddock never have won an NHRA Top Fuel trophy. But no one except Chris Karamesines, in the field has waited longer for a repeat victory than Dakin. Call him the Halley’s Comet of Drag Racing. The comet last appeared in 1986 and is expected to re-appear in mid-2061. And Dakin hasn’t been to the winners circle since the 1973 Montreal race. That’s 45 years. His only other victory came at Montreal in 1971. So Dakin has yet to score a U.S. victory, so what better race to do that but at the U.S. Nationals?
Dakin raced this year at Gainesville, Charlotte, Atlanta, and Chicago.
He has the distinction of offering his dragster to Spencer Massey to drive the past two years when Massey has wanted to update his Top Fuel license. Dakin said Massey made the obligatory annual pass on the Martin, Mich., dragstrip recently at 3.80-flat and 325 mph at 1,000 foot. “And it ran over 340 miles an hour before he shut it off,” Dakin said, insisting that isn’t all that eye-popping on the quarter-mile. Dakin also made two run after Massey’s pass. He said he clocked a 3.83, 315 in the quarter-mile, showing a front-wheel speed of 342 mph.
ZIZZO IN TOP HALF OF FIELD DESPITE GLITCH – T.J. Zizzo, who ended Day 2 of qualifying here Saturday with a strong No. 7 showing, was unable to make his Q4 run early Sunday because his crew used too much time to address an issue with the car. Before Zizzo even could perform a burnout in his Rust-Oleum Dragster, as he sat waiting at the so-called “ready line,” his crew discovered his air bottles contained no air. Wayne Newby finished his burnout in the opposite lane and sat patiently, waiting for Zizzo to get his problem fixed. But officials ruled that Zizzo was timed out and ordered his car to be pushed from the line.
The Lincolnshire, Ill., fan favorite, who’s making only his second appearance of the season, came back in the final qualifying session. He rode with a full air bottle this time and clocked a 3.848-second elapsed time at 319.90 mph to keep his No. 8 position.
He’ll have lane choice Monday against first-round opponent Blake Alexander, the No. 9 starter.
No matter what happens on the track, though, Zizzo has found a way to have a successful day every day. His interaction with fans is a clinic. He smiles and poses for pictures. He signs autographs and asks the recipients how they spell their names so he can personalize each hero card. He banters with them (“Hey, dude, like your hat!” “Thank you for coming by. Enjoy the races!” “My pleasure! Thank YOU for stopping by.”), shows interest in their hot rods (“Your hot rod’s over there on display? Little black ’32? All black? OK, that’s how I’ll recognize it. I’ll try to come over see it.”), inquires about other racers (“Is Bruce Litton here?” and “I was hoping to see Kyle Wurtzel.”), and jokes about himself.
HURTING SCHUMACHER READY TO CONTINUE MAGIC HERE – Mercifully, Tony Schumacher moved his foot.
“I threw a dart the other day. And if I didn’t move my toe, the dart would have landed on it. It went exactly to the end of my foot. There’s just no forward motion,” he said of his strength and mobility in his right arm at the moment.
Because of bothersome ligament / muscle / nerve pain and swelling that has lingered since July, Tony Schumacher has his right arm in a brace. He said the condition is “the same,” but it hasn’t stopped him from signing likely more autographs than any other driver. Physical therapy and electronic stimulation haven’t eased the pain yet, but he said, “I’ll work on it next week.” Schumacher said he thinks the problem came from a change in his workout and weightlifting routine.
“I firmly believe it’s because I lift weights every day, then I listed my house [which sold quickly], went on vacation, didn’t come home for three weeks, and didn’t lift for a few days. I think I lacked on working out for too long. And things just kind of shrank up. I didn’t take care of my right arm. When you lift, you’re also stretching. And I think I let it get a little too far into the pain zone. Once it does, it starts to numb itself. Now I’m paying for that.
“It’s OK. It is what it is. I’ve driven with a broken leg before,” Schumacher said. He gamely competed just a few short weeks after a nasty crash at Memphis left him with multiple fractures of his left leg, three dislocated fingers in his right hand, a chip in his right ankle, four cracked teeth, one bruised and swollen eye, and banged-up ribs.
Despite the discomfort, Schumacher is ready to continue spinning his legendary Indianapolis magic. “I’ve won this race 10 times and been to the final 13 [times] out of 20 [years],” he said. “I just have some great luck here. I have some fantastic memories of this place. I love coming here. I love the people. I love that the team guys are working so hard and bringing their families out. The whole thing flows nicely.”
His primary sponsor, the U.S. Army, announced in early July that it would not renew its marketing partnership with Don Schumacher Racing and the NHRA at the end of this season. Rumors circulated that DSR would make an announcement at this race regarding sponsorship for 2019 and beyond.
“My dad would know,” Schumacher said. “He’ll announce it before he tells me. If he’s working on something – and I know we are – I know in no way, shape, or form could imagine we could announce anything because I haven’t been told or even asked what I thought about it. After this race, things will start to [come together]. This is where we put our focus right now.”
ALEXANDER CONTENT WITH HIS SCHEDULE – Part-time driver Blake Alexander has fielded the question more often than he cares to. But he said the fact he might have qualified for the Countdown had he not been scheduled to skip the Seattle and Brainerd races “doesn’t bother me that much.”
The driver of Bob Vandergriff Racing’s LoCo Cookers said, “I think it’s just we want to show up and be able to win, and if we spend all of our money going down the road at events that we don’t have sponsorship for, it’s not going to help us.”
The team owner is engaged in the business side of racing far more than the emotional, romantic aspect of it. Alexander won at Norwalk, Ohio, and Sonoma, Calif., was runner-up at Atlanta, and recorded a pair of semifinal finishes in only six appearances this year. But Vandergriff wasn’t swayed enough to deviate from his business plan. And his young driver said he understands that.
“People have tried that out here,” Alexander said, “and I think you can see that it wears down their inventory of parts. And the income that you have off of the winnings doesn’t really pay for the next steps that you need to take to continue winning. It’s all about having good partnerships that are thriving and do it in the right places where they want you to be.”
But surely Alexander has some pangs of yearning.
“Yeah, it would have been cool. I definitely won’t deny that,” he said. Just as quickly he said, “It doesn’t keep me up at night. There are some days that I was home and I had a great time being home with my wife. I can’t complain. It’s nice that we won last time I raced.”
He said, “It’s my best year drag racing ever. We aren’t done yet. We come here with every intention to winning the first round and then start mixing it up tomorrow and see what happens. Just because we won twice it’s not like all we’re doing is forgetting about it now. Because everyone else, there’s congratulations in order for doing well, but at the same time everybody’s going to start forgetting about it. So we need to be focused on the next task at hand, which is winning Indy.
“There’s two races that have happened since then and another first-time winner [Billy Torrence, at Brainerd]. Life goes on, and the sport will go on,” Alexander said. “We want to continue to be a part of it and keep working hard towards the next steps.”
Those next steps aren’t finalized yet.
‘We’re working on everything right now with plans to expand with Pronto and some of our other sponsors. We don’t have everything ironed out yet, but we’re going to expand and we’ll definitely be out here more,” Alexander said.
He said a full schedule isn’t likely to be on the agenda for 2019: “I think we’ll come close. We probably won’t, though. Just because you’re at three-quarters of the way there, you still have to find seven or eight events to cover. I’ve had meetings that would do that, but that doesn’t mean that everything’s signed, sealed, and delivered yet.”
Alexander said he’s “very involved in” the sponsorship-procurement process. “That’s the only reason why I’ve ever drag raced,” he said.
KINSLEY NOSTALGIC – While the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series regulars head to Reading, Pa., for the Dodge Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway, Kebin Kinsley will be on another racetrack in his home state of Texas. For the South Arlington resident, it will mark the first time in several years he will have driven his Nostalgia Funny Car.
“It used to be my Alcohol Funny Car. We changed it over to a Nostalgia Fuel Car,” he said.
Kinsley, who was the Top Fuel runner-up here last year but missed the cut Sunday evening as his engine let go at the finish line, plans to run the Nostalgia entry in the quickly growing Funny Car Chaos Series that contributing Competition Plus photographer Chris Graves operates. It’s no-rules, heads-up, outlaw-style Funny Car action Sept. 14-15 at North Star Dragway at Denton, Texas.
“We’re having good turnouts of fans and cars, and they’re expecting more than 30 cars. And we’re excited about going up there. A bunch of guys on my crew are going to come and help me. We blew the mothballs off of it, and we took it all apart, and we’re in the process of putting it back together. I’m excited. I miss sitting that body down and doing long burnouts. Hopefully we’ll run well and turn the win light on with that thing, too. I’m excited to get back in it,” he said.
“Any Funny Car can come. You can run it on alcohol or nitrous or whatever. It just has to be a Funny Car. You’ve got to be able to turn it around fast, basically round-robin the thing. That’s another aspect to the show. You can’t be throwing the moon at this thing. You don’t have time to take the pistons out. You basically come back and zero the clutch and put oil and fuel in it and go back up there. It’s a Chicago-style setting. You can’t lean on it super-hard, but you’ve got to go fast enough to win the deal,” Kinsley said. “It’s going to be a new challenge. I love the Funny Cars. I miss driving them. It’ll be fun.”
TORRENCE COMES ON STRONG – Points leader and last year’s U.S. Nationals winner Steve Torrence, who with a 14-7 round-win record has won two-thirds of his match-ups here at Indianapolis, will start from the No. 5 position.
The Capco Contractors Dragster driver had been stuck in the bottom half of the ladder for most of the qualifying process until he jumped to No. 8 in the fourth overall session. He used a 3.791-second pass to climb to fifth place.
“[Crew chief Richard] Hogan just dropped the hammer on these guys,” Torrence said immediately after his final qualifying run.
He’ll try to drop the hammer on No. 12 starter Pat Dakin in the first round of eliminations tomorrow in his ninth start at the U.S. Nationals. Torrence has been to the final round at this race four times in the past five years.
TRACK RECORDS REMAIN – Still intact are both ends of the Lucas Oil Raceway performance records for the Top Fuel class. Clay Millican owns the elapsed-time mark he set last season at 3.663 seconds. Tony Schumacher established the speed record at 330.31 mph in September 2016.
FORCE PROVIDES MOTIVATION – Reigning champion Brittany Force, in a sense, is following in the footsteps of John Force Racing President and two-time Funny Car champion Robert Hight, who shared the spotlight with her last November. When he earned his first series title, he did so after starting with the 10th and final berth in the Countdown order. That feat has been on the minds of drivers in all pro classes, for Hight has given all title contenders hope.
But Brittany Force has provided that, too. She has learned that “I can motivate people when they look how far our jump was. From sixth to first is huge. I was chasing [Steve] Torrence. He was always ahead of me. I wasn’t there yet to feel it was mine. People may have looked at us like we didn’t have a chance. You’re really focused on the top players when you go to the Countdown. But really, anyone can come from behind and move right into that No. 1 spot.”
The Peak Dragster driver will have to wait until Monday to learn from what spot she’ll begin the Countdown, but she has supreme confidence in her crew chief, Brian Husen, and in tuning consultant Alan Johnson.
“He’s a great tuner. He’s incredible,” she said of Johnson. “We pulled off last season. [At Pomona, Calif., in the NHRA Finals] we went to No. 1, We won the championship. We won the race. We were the Dream Team. I’m very lucky to work with him. It’ll always be a career highlight, just to say I’ve worked with Alan Johnson – and on top of it, we won a championship together. I think it’s a special one for him. He’s won countless championships, but I was the first female to do it in 35 years. So there’s that added bonus.”
DUTCH EUROPEAN CHAMPION SLOGGING TOWARD AMERICAN DREAM, SALINAS MAINTAINS TOP POSITION, CRAMPTON ABETS COMPETITORS, MILLICAN AIMS FOR SECOND, SANFORD MIGHT HAVE SOME 2019 NEWS SOON
JOON STRUGGLING BUT LIVING AMERICAN DREAM – Lex Joon knows the joy and satisfaction of being the toast of the European Top Fuel scene. “Basically, I won everything in Europe, what there is to win,” he said. “I set records. I won races, I won championships.” He wanted more, wanted to test himself against the sport’s best. In the fall of 2009, Joon had competed at Las Vegas and Pomona and revisited Pomona the next year but missed the cut each time. However, he said that experience “planted the seed” for their “American Dream Tour.”
So he and crew chief wife Gerda set their sights on NHRA racing regularly in the United States. They sold their home and race shop in Zaandam, The Netherlands – and just about everything they owned – and left their family and friends and everything familiar. They jumped through the visa-process hoops and arrived in Brownsburg, Ind.
But their “American Dream Tour” didn’t unfold smoothly. It didn’t start out anything like they might have imagined it would. The one 40-foot container of personal belongings – the dragster and some equipment, a bed, and a table and some chairs – they shipped to the U.S. didn’t arrive when expected. They had to live for weeks on the $2,000 in their pockets, $2,000 that went quickly because they had to wait for Social Security Numbers before they could nail down employment.
Joon first took a job at a repair shop for the Mercedes and BMW brands. Today Gerda manages an Advance Auto Parts store (“Basically, she’s working for Courtney Force right now,” he said with a wink.) He works at a car fix-it shop shop in Clermont, and he said being able to hear cars running at Lucas Oil Raceway was tormenting him. “I’m working here around the corner. I can hear those race cars testing. I can hear the commercials the whole day for the U.S. Nationals. And every year, I thought, ‘I want to be part of that.’”
This year – this weekend – Joon is part of it, after five years of longing and planning. Even so, he is struggling. He was unqualified after two sessions. He recorded a 4.196-second elapsed time Friday night, but his run was voided because he fouled, clipped the reflectors. He passed up the early Saturday session, spoiling his plan to take advantage of all five qualifiers.
Before the event opened, Joon said, “If we are able to qualify, I can tell you one thing: there will be big names out. If not, I have nothing to be ashamed of, because this is our first race. And I can tell you one thing: we will be back next year and we will qualify, for sure. But you have to start somewhere.”
Written on the rear wing of his dragster is encouragement: “Never Quit!” Joon said, “This is where we want to be. It doesn’t matter to me how long this is going to take, but we’re going to do this. We will win races again. We will win races, but it has to start somewhere. I believe. I’m a believer, I know we can do it.
“I need to take it run by run and then the end of Sunday evening, we will be in or we will be out. I cannot just ruin my stuff, and I hate to ruin stuff, because of one race. The fact that we are in it, that we are able to compete with all those other guys, be in the qualifying, awesome. When I can come through the door [onstage for driver introductions] on Monday, I can tell you that’s a dream come true, but the fact that we are able to get in there already, to be on the list, hey – what more do you want? I can tell you one thing, there are a lot of people out there that would be more than happy to be in my position and do the things we are doing. I’m over the moon. I’m living my dream.”
June defied conventional wisdom. “A lot of people tell me that’s not really smart to start with the U.S. Nationals, because to qualify in this field it’s probably impossible. But we never choose the easy way,” he said. “I can go to a race where only 13 entries are and we know for sure we qualified and we will get the qualifying money, which is what we need. But we’ll try to do a couple of races this year, and then hopefully we can create enough funding to start racing full time next year . . . because that’s what we want to do.”
Despite a disappointing start to the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals, Joon absolutely is confident he made the right choice to relocate here. “If I say no right now, I probably will regret it for the rest of my life,” he said. “I didn’t feel scary. I felt like a new page, a new thing in my life. I always like to push the bar up higher and higher, and so for me that was the next step. Gerda and I, we both love America. From when I was a kid, like six years old, I saw already the American cars driving through our street, and I thought, ‘Wow, big cars, V8’s, automatics, electric windows.’ I loved everything what America was. So to get a chance to live here, wow. It’s the land of opportunities. You can be from a paper boy to a millionaire. The American dream, I believe in it. Europe, it’s great. People will take care of you, everything is organized. Here it’s not so much, but here you can make your own dream come true. So yeah, maybe it’s scary. I never saw it as being scared. I knew we could do this.”
For now, Lex Joon still is being frugal with his money. “I’m not saying we live from paycheck to paycheck,” he said, “but that’s how we manage to fund the team. There are no sponsors around us that say, ‘Hey, that’s cool. How much money do you need?’ So we had to build everything. That’s what took us so long to get this race program back on track. I still got only one good blower and one that well is probably good enough to put a starter motor on it to start the motor. Recently we bought some cool stuff, stage five cylinder heads. They’re not made anymore, I think they’re awesome. I know we can do it with that kind of deal. I would love to buy newer stuff, but I am so glad with the parts we’ve got right now. We made it from paycheck to paycheck to buy those parts. So yeah it’s probably old-school. We just bought an old Chaparral trailer. I love it. It’s awesome. And of course, you like to run from a big rig but I don’t mind to start from zero and then keep moving. You know, we know where we come from and we enjoy every minute.”
He has even bigger dreams than qualifying for the 2018 Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals.0
“When I wrote my business plan for the American government, what was in there is I don’t want just to race a car. I want to set up a [multicar] team. I don’t want to be a Don Schumacher or John Force, because I’m not a big name like that. I want to set up a shop with maybe two dragsters and two Funny Cars. I would love to drive Funny Cars again, because that’s where my heart is. So don’t be surprised that I will be back in a Funny Car again, because that’s what I ultimately want to do.”
He said he’d like to “find the funding for that and then get drivers in there that really are able and capable to drive cars like that but cannot find an opportunity to do it because they don’t have the funding. I want to do stuff like that. I really would like to give the young people out there an opportunity.
He said he wants “to get crew in here that would love to work for a big team but they don’t have a chance because of all kinds of reasons. I got so many requests if there was a possibility to join our team because they don’t have the opportunity with other teams. So things like that, that’s my big goal, that’s the big plan to be able to be a name in NHRA drag racing. At the end of today, when I’m done with my last breath out there, when I know my name is still out there, and people enjoying drag racing, and that will be fans and people still working here, that’s my ultimate dream.”
SALINAS STAYS NO. 1 – Mike Salinas had questioned Friday night whether his 3.756-second elapsed time would last as quickest in the Top Fuel field through Saturday. But no one could top him, although Clay Millican climbed Saturday in the third overall session from sixth place to second, six-thousandths of a second off Salinas’ pace.
Part-time racer T.J. Zizzo made the biggest gain Saturday afternoon, improving five places, from 12th to seventh with two final qualifying chances Sunday. Terry McMillen, bumped from the field in Saturday’s first session, blasted his way back in, using his later opportunity to take over the No. 10 spot. Australian Wayne Newby moved off the bump spot in the day’s last session. He’s 15th so far for Rapisarda Autosport International.
One of Salinas’ practices is to try never to make the same mistake twice. “We’ve had a list from the beginning of the year” of infractions, he said, citing “crossing lanes to blowing up motors and everything else we did. The less mistakes we make, the better we’re going to be.”
He said the Torrence team of points leader Steve and father Billy “are the guys to chase. They’re amazing. Steve’s the guy. Those are cars that are consistent and really good. Billy Torrence, I love that guy. He comes out and kicks everybody’s butt – on part-time deal! I want to be Billy!”
For right now, it should be good enough just to be Mike Salinas.
CRAMPTON AIDS AND ABETS HIS RIVALS – It’s certainly no secret that Kalitta Motorsports Top Fuel racer Richie Crampton works during the week for Morgan Lucas Racing, building dragsters that his on-track rivals are using to try to beat him each race. Crampton’s fingerprints are all over the cars that
Steve Torrence, Billy Torrence, Scott Palmer, Mike Salinas, and Blake Alexander drive.
Crampton said, “At Lucas Fab, we build all the Funny Car headers for all the Kalitta cars, for Cruz Pedregon, for Jim Head’s team with [Jonnie] Lindberg. We’re doing dragster headers now, as well.”
His situation is not unlike that of four-time Pro Stock Motorcycle champion Eddie Krawiec, who builds and freshens motors and preps bikes at the Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson shop at Brownsburg, Ind., and advises teams at the racetrack.
“You can build them. It’s just what you go on and do with them that defines how successful that engine or race car or whatever’s going to be,” Crampton said. “I think you could give every crew chief out here the exact same race car with the exact same components and they’ll figure out a way to run it different than one another. That’s just how it works out here. The ingenuity, the innovations, that’s what makes this sport cool.”
Crampton said the situation doesn’t feel weird.
“Well, it’s kind of funny because with the rules, SFI and NHRA rules on the way these cars have to be constructed, they’re not that different,” he said. “It’s the little one percent details that sets all these cars apart. Everyone builds great stuff. These Bounty Hunter race cars that I drive here at Kalitta are awesome race cars, as well. So it’s just different. It’s not better, not worse. It’s just different.
“It is a weird dynamic for me to climb into someone else’s car, because, of course, for the three years I drove for MLR, I was driving our own product, but now I drive someone else’s. It’s a fast car, too,” Crampton said.
He conceded, “Yeah, it’s kind of weird. I don’t know how many Top Fuel drivers out here have been in this same predicament where they build cars during the week. And it’s obviously not just me building cars at the shop. We have a great team, with Rod Centorbi and Jason Rush and Norm Boutot.
“It’s fun. It’s different, but I like working during the week, so that’s what I do,” Crampton said.
Lucas Fab’s clients rave about the cars, and Crampton said, “Yeah, we’ve got some pretty fast cars. We just won the championship in Australia with one.”
Crampton, the 2014 U.S. Nationals winner, made his 2017 premiere here, stepping in for Troy Coughlin Jr. at Kalitta Motorsports. He qualified 12th but lost to his teammate Doug Kalitta in the first round.
With Craftsman livery on his dragster this weekend (and for the rest of the season), Crampton is trying to break into the Countdown line-up and trying desperately to stay in the field for this Labor Day classic.
“We have a tough task ahead of us, but we control our own destiny,” he said. “If we win, we are in the Countdown, and that is exactly what we plan on doing.”
With two more qualifying sessions Sunday to establish the field for Monday eliminations, Crampton sits on the bump spot. Kebin Kinsley, Lex Joon, and Chris Karamesines unqualified driver overnight.
SECOND PLACE OR BUST! – Clay Millican, driver of the Parts Plus /Great Clips Dragster, has six consecutive IHRA Top Fuel championships (2001-06). Now he’s positioning himself to contend for a first NHRA crown.
The U.S. Nationals pre-race test session last week appeared to put him one step closer. Hot and muggy conditions during the open testing for nitro-class cars at Lucas Oil Raceway –– played into his strategy, he said.
“Four our team, it’s awesome,” he said after making his test passes. “We get to try out a new front half that Schumacher Racing just put on. We’re doing some Goodyear tire testing. All in all, it’s been a great test, because every time we stepped on the gas, the car went.”
As testing turned to The Real Thing, Millican shared his strategy.
“For our team, the last five or six races,” the third-place driver in the Top Fuel standings said, “we’ve been telling ourselves that the championship for us is to finish second before the reset.”
He was referring to the NHRA’s procedure of wiping out points accumulated in the regular season at the outset of the six-race playoff and separating the title-eligible top 10 drivers by 20-point increments – except the first-place driver, who opens the Countdown with a 30-point lead on the No. 2-ranked rival.
But second? Why second? Leader Steve Torrence’s point level is out of reach.
Millican entered the weekend a single point behind Tony Schumacher and 26 points ahead of No. 4 Leah Pritchett. The three of them were 4-5-6 in the provisional order after Friday qualifying: Pritchett, Schumacher, and Millican, in that order.
“The guaranteed way to make ourselves finish second before they reset the points is to win the race. And I feel like we can win the race every time we show up,” Millican said.
“To win Indy would be really, really huge. Will it top the win at Bristol?” Millican asked about his first NHRA victory. “Probably not,” he said, answering his own question. “But it’s the U.S. Nationals, and I want to win it.”
ANGRY DISCS – Terry McMillen said he has been quarreling with his clutch discs.
“We did a little bit of testing with some clutch discs, and we still have been testing with clutch discs,” he told Joe Castello in a WFO Radio segment just before the Brainerd race a couple of weeks ago. “Unfortunately, we have a clutch disc that’s just angry. It doesn’t want to cooperate. It doesn’t play well with others. It gets hot. It gets aggressive. It wants to take the tires up, no matter what you do with it. When you put the stops on it and shut the flow off, it wears too much at times and sometimes not at all. So it’s never predictable. So that has made it very difficult to make the car the car that it was back in Norwalk [where he was runner-up to Blake Alexander] or before that, even. We used our last five-disc stuff up in Norwalk, so we had to put that evil disc in there for the final and it didn’t participate well. But we’re working on that. We’re doing a lot of things. Rob [crew chief Wendland] has spent a lot of time in the clutch area.
Wendland called the clutch-disc troubles “a thorn” in his agenda this year.
“What gave us a thorn, I think, in some of the races that we’ve been to [is] the clutch disc that we’re running this year,” he said. “I thought I was making wholesale changes to help relieve some of the issues that we were having. I’ve never made as big a change as I did in Sonoma to see a result happen. That was a tough learning curve for me to get that.
“But I think from this point on,” he said at Seattle, “that it’s going to change the way our car has responded to some of the things I have done. It’s going to be for the better, for sure – I hope.
“But that’s been our struggle this year. It’s not been crew members, it’s not been this or that. It has been on me to figure out the consistency in our clutch that I was asking for,” Wendland said.
“Our car has always run super-hard from 60-foot to 330-foot. We might have the worst 60-foot, but that split between 60-foot and 330-foot . . . I remember [Torrence Racing crew chief Richard] Hogan telling me, ‘You know, if you got the 60-foot from an .860 to an .840, you know that would be like a .72 and not a .75.’ I said, ‘Yeah, why don’t you come on over and help me out with that’” Wendland said.
McMillen said he has some new chassis tubing on his Amalie Oil Dragster. “The other thing we did when we came back from the Swing,” he said, referring to the midsummer trek from Denver to Sonoma, Calif., to Seattle, “was we took it to DSR and put another front half on it. There’s nothing like new tube.”
PRITCHETT HANDS-ON RACER – Name a national event at which Don Schumacher Racing driver Leah Pritchett isn’t competing in another category or two. At the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals, she has her Dodge Challenger Drag Pak in the provisional No. 1 qualifying position in the Factory Stock Showdown category in addition to keeping her Papa John’s Top Fuel dragster among the top five in qualifying. Some weekends she has added in a charity race against the pizza company’s founder, John Schnatter.
But this weekend, she has a completely new role: back-up girl. Actually, she has been out on the starting line to help guide her husband, Gary Pritchett, as he backs up his Top Alcohol Funny Car Camaro.
Gary Pritchett is third in the qualifying order, behind tentative leader Chris Marshall and No. 2 Annie Whiteley. Pritchett matched Whiteley’s elapsed time at 5.575 seconds, but her 268.06-mph speed was faster than his 265.59. Leah Pritchett has helped her husband in his racing before, serving as a crew member on other types of cars.
And someone who can vouch for her skill and willingness to help is her Factory Stock Showdown teammate Mark Pawuk, who sits behind her at the provisional No. 2 spot overnight.
Pawuk said, “Leah, she’s awesome. I licensed in Charlotte, and she stayed over on Monday. She worked with me on the car, to get me familiar with it. She stayed there the whole day and worked with us. She actually showed up at Indy after Bristol Monday morning to help us at the track. I actually went to the shop. When we found out we couldn’t run the motor, they brought it back to the shop. And it’s a lot of work to change the motor in one of those cars. Leah was there on top of the lift, thrashing on the upper side” while he and his son Kyle and two others worked on the bottom side. “Man, she was right with us – very supportive as a team member,” Pawuk said.
“It’s just been a real pleasure for me to work with her and all of the Schumacher teams,” he said. “A lot of the crew chiefs on the fuel teams are good friends of mine. I’ve known Rahn Tobler for years. I’ve known [Jack] Beckman, Guido [Dean Antonelli], [Ron] Capps, Tony [Schumacher], Mike Green, and Zippy [Mike Neff]. And they have all been so supportive of me. All the texts I got after Norwalk [in his second race back in the mix] just made me feel so good. They just welcomed me into their team.
(“And the other thing that really meant so much to me when I announced I was coming back, after we made that announcement at Charlotte, was all of my old fans that came back. They sent me notes on how they were so excited to see me back racing again. It made me feel so good. It gave me the drive to want to go out there and do well again.) It’s pretty awesome. I figured they’d forget – the day you go away, nobody knows who you are.” )
SANFORD CELEBRATES ANNIVERSARY OF HER TOP FUEL DEBUT - Ashley Sanford wears her emotions on her sleeve, and a year ago at Indianapolis, those emotions were ones of excitement. That’s when Sanford made her Top Fuel debut at the U.S. Nationals.
“It was the best weekend of my life. It was just a dream,” she said. “As a little girl I had always known about Indy, the Big Go, I watched it, and you know when I got to come here in the Alcohol class, that was absolutely amazing. But nothing can compare to the little girl who had the dream of getting to come here and make that debut appearance, and on my very first pull run a .79[-second elapsed time].”
So when can we see Sanford back in the seat of a Top Fuel dragster? She says hopefully sooner rather than later.
“I believe definitely before the end of this season we’ll be able to announce something. But the sooner the better, and actually who we are working with it’s pretty much all-hands-on-deck. Everyone is excited to make this happen. So it’s really just a matter of time at this point,” Sanford said. “I just can’t wait to scream it from the rooftops and tell everybody about it.”
Sanford says it’s a “pinch me” moment when people ask her for pictures and autographs, especially kids.
“Whenever fans would approach me, and especially the younger fans, I just saw myself in them. And I remember going up to the ropes and being so intimidated because that’s a race car driver. You want to get their autograph, but what do you say? I just remember looking up to them and being in this position now, I’m like, ‘Oh, there’s people!’ I’m just a person, you know? And so I love to take the opportunity to get down on their level and make it such an experience to where they feel connected,” Sanford said, “because as a little girl when that did happen to me with a handful of drivers, that’s what really imprinted on me to be like, ‘OK, I can do this. I believe in myself.’”
Sanford said being a female in a male-dominated sport can be tough, and while females are making lots of headway, they’re still outnumbered on the racetrack.
“I did have a handful of people come up to me, men, saying, ‘What are you doing? You’re too young.’ Like, ‘You’re not built for this’ kind of people, just because of the way I look. And it bothered me. But at the same time, I used it as motivation to be like, ‘I’m just going to prove these guys wrong,’” she said. “And not saying that everyone was out here like that, because there are so many supportive men and females that I have worked with who have helped get me where I am today. But I think at the end of the day, it’s just one of those things that even though it’s gotten better, men are always going to feel a little more superior to women. It happens. Even though women are absolutely killing it in this sport, when you look at the numbers, there’s still so many more men compared to women.”
Anyone looking for Sanford this weekend can catch her in the top of the stands, near the finish line.
“My very favorite place is to go [watch racing] is the end of the track, the top of the stands, and watch from there, because that’s the best place to really take in visually how fast these cars are going,” she said. “Because on the starting line, yeah they take off, it’s great, you feel it. But you don’t really see the end result as clear.”
Sanford said growing up she never saw herself as a professional drag racer: “I would always go to the races and I’d be like, ‘Dad, I can do that.’ He was like, ‘Oh, yeah you could.’ He was always supportive. I said it like, ‘Oh, I could be an astronaut. I could be a Hollywood actress.’ I was a little kid.”
Sanford says what gave her the push she needed to jump into the sport was a conversation with former NHRA Funny Car driver Alexis DeJoria.
“When I was 14-15 years old, I ran into Alexis DeJoria at one of the events in Pomona, and I told her I was just getting an autograph and said, ‘I casually race sand drags,’ and she stopped me and pulled me aside and was like, ‘That is the coolest thing ever. You keep it up. Like, do you want to come out here?’ I was like, ‘Yes, of course I do.’ Again, it was something I never thought was possible. And she’s like, ‘You should go for it.’ And I’m like, ‘I should go for it.’ And it just planted a seed at such a young age, 14 or 15.” - Allyson Johnson
SALINAS RULES FIRST DAY OF QUALIFYING – Perhaps inspired by the late drag-racing legend Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen, to whom he has dedicated the paint scheme on his Scrappers Dragster this weekend, Mike Salinas cranked out a 3.756-second elapsed time at 321.04 mph to lead the Top Fuel field in Friday’s first day of qualifying for the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals.
The recycling-center owner from San Jose, Calif., said he felt “like a little kid a candy store” even racing on this storied track (known now as Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis) for the first time. But he threw all of his skill and grit at the tough task of maintaining the 10th and final spot for the Countdown to the Championship.
With this final race before the fields are set for the six-event playoff, Salinas gained four qualifying bonus points and said he believes two things: his numbers won’t hold up through four more scheduled time-trial sessions and his Morgan Lucas Racing-built dragster has more performance potential in it.
He said he and his Doug Kuch-tuned team “have been planning on this. And it’s kind of scary because it’s working.” Salinas said tuning consultant and parts supplier Alan Johnson – who has won Top Fuel championships with Gary Scelzi, Tony Schumacher, Larry Dixon, Del Worsham, and Shawn Langdon – “is teaching me how to win.”
Other first-session leaders were JR Todd (Funny Car), Tanner Gray (Pro Stock), and Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle).
FIVE RACERS VIE FOR FOUR SPOTS – Seismic shifts this weekend could rock the Top Fuel Countdown lineup. The final four spots will fill up this Labor Day weekend, and current No. 7-ranked Terry McMillen appears to be safely in the field. His first real concern is No. 8 Brittany Force, the reigning series champion who trails him by just four points. She’s a threat to leapfrog McMillen, and she has an 86-point advantage over Scott Palmer.
And that’s where the drama intensifies. A mere nine points separate No. 9 Palmer and No. 11 Richie Crampton. In between is Mike Salinas. So Palmer is trying to fend off Salinas, who’s seven points behind and tentatively owns the 10th and final Countdown position. Crampton, who won this race as a rookie in 2014, sat out almost all of the regular season last year and wasn’t in the playoff mix. So he’s looking to return to the Countdown for a fourth time in five seasons.
Palmer has an unorthodox approach to it all.
“Our sponsor is Tommy Thompson [of Cat Spot Litter], and his No. 1 instruction to us is to always have fun,” he said. “That’s what we’re going to do, and we believe that mindset will help us run at our best. If we do the best we can, we will make it into the playoffs. The difference between this season and years past is that we’re a good team now that no one takes lightly. When people race us, they know we are going to put up a number and that they’re going to have to run strong to beat us.”
Salinas will be racing on this storied dragstrip for the first time, and while he said, “Actually, it’s pretty awesome, to be honest,” he is exuding lots of confidence.00
“This is what we’re here for, and I love it. I love the pressure of racing the best guys in the world. But we’re [coming here] to win, not just to get some points. That’s our mindset for every race, and this is a big one for us,” the Scrappers Racing Dragster owner-driver said.
Salinas reached the Bristol final round and had back-to-back semifinal appearances heading into this race. “We’re happy to be in the position where we have a chance to do this, and we need to capitalize on it. We’ve got a very competitive race car, and we’re excited. Bring it on. Let’s go.”
Crampton, sporting a new Craftsman paint scheme this weekend on his Kalitta Motorsports entry, is extra-inspired to fare well here because of his first-round loss at Brainerd, Minn., two weeks ago. He is 1-2 in the past three races against Force, the driver he’d like to catch up with.
“For me, it’s the first time coming into Indy not really securely in the top 10, so you’re definitely aware of the situation,” Crampton said. “But that being said, as a driver, I’m just going to come here and do my job and let the points take care of themselves. There’s enough pressure as it is, and I definitely want to secure a spot in the Countdown. We’ll do our thing and I’m confident that my Craftsman/Toyota team, led by Connie [team owner Kalitta] and Rob Flynn, will be good.”
Steve Torrence, Tony Schumacher, Clay Millican, Leah Pritchett, Doug Kalitta, and Antron Brown already have secured berths for the six-race Countdown. Schumacher is an eight-time series champion and 10-time Indianapolis winner. Brown is a three-time champion.
The points-and-a-half system that has become the practice at this one event will award 150 points to the winner. And that’s the wild card, for it sets up dramatic possibilities. The trio of Palmer, Salinas and Crampton could all finish in the top 10 should they all have big weekends and Terry McMillen and Brittany Force struggle.
If Force’s two days of testing here last week are an accurate forecast of her fortunes at “The Big Go,” betting on her to struggle might be a foolish wager. She was among the quickest, with a 3.793-second elapsed times. That was a huge boost to Force, who’ll carry the Peak Coolant and Motor Oil paint scheme this weekend.
“I was excited to be back out there with my team. We’ve been struggling this year so testing was very important to us,” Force said. “We are fighting to move up in the top 10 right now, so we were trying to get this car figured out and set up for this weekend. Indy is one of our biggest races of the season. I remember going as a kid watching my dad [149-time Funny Car winner John Force] win year after year. We’ll be looking for a long weekend and a win of our own.”
McMillen has been to four finals this season [at Houston, Charlotte, Topeka, and Norwalk, Ohio]. But since his runner-up finish at Norwalk, he has five straight first-round losses. The positive news is that he held steady in seventh place the entire time and has made more runs this year than ever before at this point in the season. “Other than Steve Torrence, we’ve gone to more final rounds than anybody else this year,” McMillen pointed out to WFO Radio’s Joe Castello. “When it comes to Countdown time, everybody plays as hard as they can to win. This year, I believe we’re throwing our hat in the ring and area contender. We do have the ability to go rounds. We do have the ability to win races. We have the combination, other than what we’re fighting at this moment [clutch discs]. When we get that figured back out, we are going to be a contender. We’re going to be back in the top half of qualifying. At any given point, we can win a race.”
His crew chief, Rob Wendland, said, “Honestly, I think we’re in a great position mostly to stay in the Countdown. But I think this team from this point is really going to move forward quite a bit, even more so than what it has.”
He said he makes a conscious effort to stay humble. Often a misbehaving dragster can do that for a crew chief. But Wendland said, “I really am. You want to be positive and all that, you really do, there’s no doubt about it. But as a crew chief I’m very humble because having the best car on the property, first round, going home, that’s happened. Sometimes it’s up to the nitro gods what’s going to happen . . . the aluminum gods . . . all these kinds of gods that are involved in this sport. So I try and be humble and stay grounded. The team will say, ‘Yeah, man, I feel good about this weekend.” And I think it’s a great feeling to feel good about this weekend but to come out and say, “We’re going to win this race”, if they allow us to, we’ll do the best job possible and we will.
McMillen said, “Keep in mind, you go to a couple final rounds in the Countdown and you can win a championship. You could win it. You have to look at it that way. You have to look at we have something performing very well. The team is very solid. Rob does a fabulous job making it all work. So now it’s just a matter of going out there and winning. You never know until you hit the gas and hopefully you get to hit the gas four times on [race day].”
NO BONUS RACE ‘BUMMER’ TO DRIVERS – Without a bonus race, such as the recent Traxxas Showdown or classic Bud Shootout or Skoal Showdown, this year’s U.S. Nationals has a slightly different vibe. With no $100,000 bonus to aim for, the tension isn’t heightened. The consensus seemed to be that the drivers were disappointed not to have that extra incentive but found the silver lining: that they had more time to pay attention to details for optimum qualifying results.
“It was nice to have that opportunity to go some more rounds and maybe win the Traxxas Shootout. It’s a big win and it motivates the whole team. It’s a bummer that we don’t have it this year,” Brittany Force said. “But it takes a little bit of the pressure off, which, I guess, is nice.”
Steve Torrence, the last to win the Top Fuel Traxxas Shootout, said. ““It’s pretty weird. That’s a big blow for the sport. It’s disappointing not to have it. It’s a fun thing to come here to do. It was fun to have a race within a race. I remember when I was a kid. We had the Big Bud Shootout and the Skoal Showdown. It was awesome to see that. And to have the opportunity to double up. So it’s disheartening to come here and there not be anything. Maybe somebody will step up or maybe we can work with somebody to bring it back. Every year we qualified for the Shootout, we went to the final, then finally got it done last year. It’s pretty neat to say I was the last person to win the Shootout race.”0
Torrence said he and his team liked the extra pressure, the challenge of it, but conceded that it did make extra work. Without the Shootout this year, he said he’ll find plenty to keep his attention occupied.
“There’s still plenty to work on and plenty to concentrate on,” he said. “Part of the Shootout was your qualifying session. It’s going to free you up a little bit to push it a little harder instead of going out there and racing. Q2 was first round. Then you had the second round. And Q3 was the final round. Those runs there, they’re not swinging-for-the-fence runs now. It’s even bigger when you’re running for 100-grand for a Shootout race, and we race a normal one for 50-grand. There’s more at stake.”
In the past two years, Terry McMillen won the fan-vote lottery drawing for the eighth and final Shootout spot. And he said he was grateful for the chance to win $100,000 – and extra cash, no matter where in the bonus race he finished. However, he recognized how hard his team had to work to take on another obligation during qualifying for the U.S. Nationals.
“As welcome as the chance to earn extra money might be, it’s nice not to have to worry about it. Now we can focus on staying in the top 10 and doing what we have to do,” McMillen said.
THE ORCHESTRA OF A SEMIPRO TEAM – For Kebin Kinsley, the strings, brass, woodwinds, and clarinets all were in harmony here last September as his Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals effort reached a crescendo. The part-time Top Fuel racer from Kennedale, Texas, reached the final round of drag racing’s most prestigious event, and he said he’s still looking at the experience as a fairy tale.
“It was crazy. I woke up Tuesday morning, and I was like, ‘Wow. Was I in a dream? Did this really happen?’” Kinsley told Competition Plus’ Susan Wade on the Caruso and Wade Podcast (www.Anchor.fm/the-caruso-and-wade-podcast). “When I was a kid, I remember watching [ABC-TV’s] ‘Wide World of Sports’ and watching Don Garlits and Don Prudhomme and all my heroes racing at Indy, and I’m like, ‘Someday I’m going to do that.’ Just getting to go and participate . . . When we had the Gas Monkey car, we got to go, but we didn’t qualify. But I feel like we won the race, just qualifying [last season]. It was the fastest field in Indy history, and we were on the bump. Just glad to be there. I’m so blessed to get to be able to do this with such a great bunch of guys, with Roger Hennen backing us.”
Kinsley likened watching a well-run racing team to an outing at the symphony: “It’s an orchestra. Everybody has to do their job and do it right, and they’ve got to care. That’s the main thing. We’ve got a good bunch of guys who really care about what they’re doing. They want to turn this thing around and give me a safe ride and go rounds. That’s what it’s all about. We’re ecstatic that we’re [at] Indy. We’ve kind of struggled this year and weren’t real sure we were going to go.
“We changed to the new, late-model cylinder heads and really hadn’t gotten a handle on that. We’ve gotten a bunch of new clutch disks. We have a lot of little variables. These things are so touchy. I mean, they’re one turn of the knob of either making it or blowing up. My hat’s off to the guys who get to do this every weekend, because they can keep up with that routine. It’s hard for the guys who get to go only three or four times a year,” he said. “To be able to go out and compete on the level we’re racing at, it’s just unbelievable. Every morning I pinch myself and say, ‘I get to go do this!’ It’s quite an opportunity even to get to go, but to have a car that has a chance of going rounds is just phenomenal.”
He said if he won this time around, “that would be the real Cinderella story.” Like many racers before him, Kinsley conceded that “it’s probably harder” to repeat a final-round appearance. “Everybody, when they go to the starting line, they’re going for the jugular vein,” he said. on The Caruso and Wade Podcast. That’s what we do, too. That’s the approach we’ve always taken. We only get to do this three or four times a year, but when we go, we’re going to run hard. They’d better have their A-game on, because we’re going to try to have our A-game on. That’s what’s so cool about Scott Palmer, Shawn Reed and some of the other guys: They’re trying to get after it and be a frontrunner or a spoiler. That’s what we’re going for, to be a spoiler and go some rounds and turn the win light on.”
Kinsley’s situation and background are similar to those of Palmer, for both are active in the Lucas Oil Drag Boats Series, operate nostalgia and outlaw race cars, and want to make progress in the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series. Many folks look at his team as an underdog independent. But just as Palmer has a close alliance with Steve and Billy Torrence and the entire Capco Contractors team, Kinsley receives help from Kalitta Motorsports.
We’re an independent team, but we’re not. We’re teamed with Kalitta [Motorsports], and if it weren’t for those guys, we wouldn’t be where we’re at today. They’re still a big influence on how we tune our car,” Kinsley said. “Jim O [Doug Kalitta crew chief Jim Oberhofer] and the whole gang have just been such a big support to our whole team. Roger buys all his parts from them. We share information. Donnie [Bender] and David Kirkland are our co-crew chiefs, and they’re just doing a fantastic job.
Kinsley got a first look at the new, much-cussed-and-discussed track preparation in May at Topeka. And he said, “That’s definitely been part of our problem. Actually, the way we run our car, it wasn’t as bad for us as it is for the guys who run a lot harder. We’re not out there to set low E.T. We just want to be in the middle of the pack and be a spoiler [on race day]. It has played into our tune-up a little bit. That’s why we’re dropping cylinders, plus we had some clutch-disk issues. It’s all stuff you have to work out to go A to B. That’s kind of the wall we’re up against with not being able to go test. We’re going to go out there and do our best shot and see how it goes.”0
Racing fulltime likely won’t come anytime soon for Kinsley, although he said he wishes he could enter all 24 races.
“That is a dream of mine,” he said. “Roger likes to go do this for fun, and he’s a smart enough man and he doesn’t let it take him over and become obsessed, like it does with me. I would go racing every day, if I could. He’s a great businessman. He has taught me a lot of stuff. I own my own business. To run a fulltime schedule, it takes so much money. And he doesn’t want to spend that kind of money. This is a fun deal for all us buddies to get together and go do it. When we got the dragster, it was a place for all of us to go and have fun. Then it’s gotten a lot more serious. It costs so much money even to be a mediocre team. It’s hard to be a semipro. You need to go [to the races] to learn it, but at the same time, you don’t want to go spend all your money to do it. To run 24 races, it’s astronomically expensive. It’s sickening. I want to go do it, but it’s not my pocketbook.”
VARIETY OF CHASSIS – Six different styles of dragsters are in the field of 19. Brittany Force is the only one to use a John Force Racing-built chassis, and Rapisarda Autosport International’s Wayne Newby is driving the lone Hadman. Kebin Kinsley and the two Kalitta Motorsports drivers – Doug Kalitta and Richie Crampton – have Kalitta versions. But Crampton helped build the Morgan Lucas Racing-designed cars that Mike Salinas, Steve Torrence, Billy Torrence, Scott Palmer, and Blake Alexander are running. Pat Dakin, T.J. Zizzo, and Lex Joon are in Murf McKinney’s handiwork. The three-driver Don Schumacher Racing contingent represents DSR’s shop, along with Terry McMillen, Clay Millican, and Chris Karamesines.
NEW COMPANY FOR STRINGER IN STRENGTHENING ALLIANCE – Top Fuel championship contender Clay Millican will be back in the Great Clips / Parts Plus / Strutmasters.com Dragster in 2019. But the Stringer Performance entry will have a new organization in place behind the scenes.
In a prepared statement issued Friday, Stringer Performance owner Doug Stringer announced he’ll team with Scott Gardner and Jonathan "J.J." Koehler in forming a new company at the conclusion of the 2018 NHRA Mello-Yello Drag Racing season.
In the interim, Gardner and Koehler will observe current operations and begin immediate groundwork for 2019, according to company spokeswoman Stacey Murdock.
Gardner is past president of the International Hot Rod Association and a former track owner-operator. He’ll continue working as a consultant to the racing industry with his company, Gardner Race Track Consultants.
Koehler, an electronic security expert, owns FSS Electronics and its subsidiary company, Timing & Audio of Illinois City, Ill. He will bring 24 years of motorsports operations management and technical support experience to the new alliance.
Gardner will serve as the Chief Marketing Officer with emphasis on marketing and sponsorship. Koehler will serve as Chief Financial Officer. Stringer will continue direct involvement in daily operations as Chief Operating Officer. All three partners said they plan to take an aggressive approach with efforts to maximize marketing, promotion, and on-track performance.
"This is an incredible opportunity to join a professional NHRA race team in pursuit of a Top Fuel championship,” Koehler said. “We are committed to the long-term growth and success of the entire operation."
“Doug, Clay, David, and the entire team are tremendous people,” Gardner said, “and together we will have an incredible future.”
McLeansboro, Ill.-headquartered Stringer Performance launched in 2015, and it’s in its fourth year of competition in the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series. David Grubnic will remain crew chief, and the organization will continue to work with current marketing partners Parts Plus, Great Clips, and Strutmasters.com.
Stringer has more than 30 years of experience in the motorsports industry. He beagn in drag racing but became more involved in team ownership in NASCAR’s Busch Series (now the Xfinity Series). There he won multiple races with NASCAR star Kasey Kahne. In 2015, he returned to his drag racing roots, starting Stringer Performance.
“Strength comes from numbers and talent,” he said, “and these gentlemen bring skill sets to our organization that will significantly enhance our program with fresh ideas and new opportunities.”
A 2019 team initiative, the announcement said, “will include a philanthropic movement of practicing corporate social responsibility for its actions and through its activities will positively affect society, consumers, employees, and other stakeholders. More information will be forthcoming concerning this endeavor.”
Millican said, “I am excited for this addition to our team. Scott and J.J. will do nothing but make this a stronger team. I have known Scott and J.J. for over 20 years. They are good people and friends. They will bring a wealth of knowledge to our team.”
THE MANZO WAY – Scott Palmer has channeled sportsman legend Frank Manzo as he has approached this U.S. Nationals. And the “fight” he has on his hands is “a fun fight,” he said.
"Frank Manzo taught me something when I raced with him," Palmer said of Manzo, who won 105 national events. "He said his racing season always started at Indy and ended in Brainerd. So, basically before Indy every year, he started fresh with new cars and new parts. Usually by Indy your stuff is getting tired, and then you push everything harder at Indy because it's Indy. And then you push it even harder down the stretch, because you're racing for the championship. It really doesn't make sense to do your most important racing with old stuff.
"So, we are doing this the Frank Manzo way. Instead of testing for Indy, we went back and freshened everything up, replaced a lot of parts with new stuff from Tom Conway, and we're ready to give this thing our best effort. Frank won so many championships and races. He's the second winningest driver in NHRA history, and he did it because when he got ready to go to Indy, he was starting fresh. We're following his lead."
Palmer’s attitude toward the Countdown is little bit different from those of his competitors.
"Making the Countdown is important, of course,” the CatSpot Litter / Marck Dragster owner-driver said, “but it's really not what drives us. What drives us is that Tommy [marketing partner Tommy, owner of CatSpot Litter] and CatSpot give us a chance to run at this level, so we do this for them. Our team doesn't just represent a company – we represent a close friend. We know that we are lucky to have this opportunity, and we want Tommy and everyone at CatSpot to be proud of what we do.
"Still, we are taking this race very seriously. It will be tense. There's a lot of pressure, but it's good pressure because we are in this position. We could be completely out of it, but we're not. We just want to do our best,” Palmer said. “When it comes Monday night, if we can all sleep good that night, knowing we gave it our all, that's all you can ask for.
"I know it's going to be a pressure cooker, but our chances are as good as the other two cars in this fight. From here on in, it's all going to come down to who makes the least mistakes, who has the least failures, and who goes the most rounds. It'll be a fight, but we've fought our whole lives to stay out here. It's a lot better to be fighting to be in the Countdown than to be fighting to stay out here. We've had way tougher fights than this. This is a fun fight."
NOT SMUG – Steve Torrence has been the Top Fuel points leader since the second race of the season. But he said he isn’t assuming he’ll lead the Countdown field into the first playoff race, at the Sept. 14-16 Dodge Nationals at Reading, Pa.
As he prepared to open defense of his U.S. Nationals victory, the Kilgore, Texas, native said, “I won’t believe it until we get through that first qualifying run on Friday. This sport can bite you. It bit us last year when we crashed in Dallas [in the fourth of six playoff races].”
That was costly financially, emotionally, and professionally, for Torrence won just two elimination rounds during the rest of the season and saw Brittany Force claim what he thought would be his.
Once again this season, he has dominated, winning five times (Phoenix, Las Vegas, Charlotte, Richmond, Epping, N.H.). But the trophy he’s interested in is a championship trophy.
“If we’re the No. 1 seed, that’s great, but that wasn’t our goal coming in here,” Torrence said. “There’s only one thing we’ve talked about all year. Everybody on this team is committed to winning a championship that we know we let get away last year. When you get so close that you can taste it and it doesn’t happen, it just makes you want it even more,” he said. “Maybe my attitude wasn’t right [last year], but it is now.”
Torrence is bidding to become just the fifth driver in Countdown history to earn the No. 1 starting spot in consecutive seasons.
OF NEW TRACK PREP, TESTING HOPE, AND BOWS AND ARROWS –Two-time Australian Top Fuel champion Wayne Newby has raced in the NHRA, in the United States, a number of times. But he got his first look at the current track-prep situation last week during pre-race testing at Lucas Oil Raceway. And he said he was pleased with what he saw.
“I’m excited, because it’s probably more like what we run back home,” the Sydney native said. He said it should allow the Rapisarda Autosport International team to run competitively with what he called “the big boys” and “hopefully let the boys from back home that we can be in the middle of it.”
Team owner Santo Rapisarda had been unsure if the car could be brought within regulations with a new front half in time for the team to be ready to race at Indianapolis.
Despite having only about a week’s notice to prepare to come to Indianapolis, Newby gained some confidence during testing: “We made five laps, and it got better each lap. It kept smoking the tires, but we had new front half on it. So we had to work that out, as well.”
Five cracks at making the 16-car field is what Newby will get here this weekend in qualifying.
“Hopefully we can go to that first qualifier and it’ll do what we wanted,” he said. “Hopefully that first pass, we can run a pretty decent number. It’s the only night session. It might be the only no-rain session.” The weather forecast has been a bit threatening, calling for spotty thundershowers and scattered rain Saturday and Sunday.
If rain should interrupt the racing this weekend and all the work on the car is up-to-date, the RAI team would have plenty of ways to amuse themselves. “Fireworks were banned in Sydney many years ago, so it’s like Heaven when you come over here,” Newby said, probably unaware that down Interstate 74 from the racetrack is a gigantic fireworks store. Nevertheless, he said, “We normally buy firecrackers and put them on radio-controlled helicopters and fly them in the sky and try to shoot them with a BB gun or air rifle. This year we bought crossbows and arrows. So now we have crossbows and firecrackers that shoot the helicopters out of the sky.”
If this team doesn’t earn the Top Fuel Wally trophy or the Best Appearing Crew Award, it is the hands-down favorite for the Most Creative Entertainment Award.
BOOT CAMP OVER – Rob Wendland, crew chief for Amalie Oil Dragster owner-driver Terry McMillen, has issued a challenge . . . to his own team.
“Earlier this year, I said our goal was to be in the top 10,” Wendland said. “And I told them I think we need to change our goals to top five. With the way this car runs and track prep and all these other things, we could be champions. And everybody was ‘Whoa.’ We just need to do better first round. Qualifying is very important to your position. If this team could get past first round, I’d make it pretty ugly on the rest of them. That’s the way we run.”
McMillen looked back to the 2017 Seattle race in which he was runner-up to Antron Brown. That weekend seemed to turn on a switch for his young crew hands who were starting to work in unison but needed confirmation that they were progressing.
“I think overall the team won. What happened is that they all believed in Rob and what we do. I think what that final-round appearance did was give them a confidence. They really just said, “We got this now.’ It’s pretty much changed his position and what he does. He can spend more time on the car now because he doesn’t have to come out here and worry about if the car is put together right. Boot camp is over,” he said. “They picked the ball up and they ran with it, and that’s what’s changing. Now we’re giving him the chance to do what he’s really good at. Not that he’s not good at anything else. He can sit there, and I’ll watch him analyze each run, every increment of that car and then he comes up with a better solution. He’s got confidence in the team. Their confidence came when they went to the final round and we outran them. I think from then on, it was our turning point for the rest. You look at it now: we’re second in final-round appearances to Torrence. That’s not a bad deal.”
Wendland said, “My biggest satisfaction here was winning Vegas. And that was for the team, because a lot of them never won a race. Bob [crew chief Peck] has been out here for 15 or whatever years and never won a race. The other ones, they’ve had no part in that. It was really funny. I tell this story a lot. So Steve Johnson came up to me and he goes, “Hey, they always have the drivers up on stage. How cool would it be to have your team up there?” And I go, “Do they do that now? I don’t know. I’ve been out of the picture for awhile.” And he said, “No, but I think I could arrange it.” So he went to all the team guys and said, “Hey, we’re getting you guys all on stage.” They had no idea if we could do it or not. So they introduce Terry and here comes the whole team up behind him. And here I am standing out in the crowd, watching them celebrate this moment. To me, that was awesome, because I know how hard this team has worked to get to that point.
“I always say we work twice as hard as any of these other guys, because we have to service so much in the weekend – because we don’t have this big old giant depth of parts like some of these big teams have,” he said. “So we service a lot of stuff we have right then. We don’t pull from as big an inventory. Since Sonoma of last year our parts usage has probably been half of what it had been a couple years prior. I think we had a defective part in the engine and we didn’t realize it and we got a good deal on it. So it was hard to push that thing off to the side and I think it cost Terry a tremendous amount of money over the past five years. As long as we got that dialed in and, like Terry said, the confidence in the team [rose].”
NO RETREMENT PLANS –Chris Karamesines, as nearly as anyone can figure, is 87 years old, although – as NBC Sports’ Jerry Bonkowski discovered – “others who know him say the Chicago native is actually 88 or even 89.” However many candles belong on his birthday cake this November 11, the man known affectionately as “The Golden Greek” said Friday he has no plans to retire.
“Not yet,” he said of parking his Strange Engineering / Lucas Oil Dragster. “I’ll keep doing it as long as I feel good about it. There’s a lot of rumors.”
Karamesines said he isn’t annoyed that many of the questions about him and his team target his age.
“It don’t bother me. It don’t matter,” he said. “I’m a certain age, and they all know what it is. I just enjoy what I’m doing. I’m having fun.”
The Little Old Lady From Pasadena from the 1964 Jan and Dean song has nothing on Chris Karamesines. But Karamesines never has won at Indianapolis (and neither has she, as far as anyone can tell). He didn’t express much optimism that will change this year.
“I doubt it. That’s far-fetched. Just to qualify and make a few runs would be great. We’re just happy to be here and run with the people after running 50 years drag racing from California to here. We’ve made a lot of friends, and you don’t forget ‘em,” he said. “So you enjoy what you’re doing. It keeps you going.”
Indeed, he is happy to be at Indianapolis, at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals. Karamesines underwent hip-replacement surgery and returned to action this summer at his home track at Joliet, Ill. Then at Brainerd, Minn., two weeks ago, he became the oldest qualifier in NHRA history. He started 13th in the 16-car field with a 4.003-second elapsed time on the 1,000-foot course at 305.01 mph. NHRA records indicate Karamesines’ career-best speed is 313.51 mph (from the 2015 Gatornationals).
He said he couldn’t single out one particular favorite memory of this NHRA showcase race. “I have all my memories at all the racetracks I’ve gone to. I have memories of every one of them. There’s a million stories. I can’t tell you – I can’t remember what I did yesterday,” Karamesines teased. “If I had to tell you my stories, I’d have to write a book.”