2019 NHRA AAA FINALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
AUTO CLUB FINALS – POMONA, CALIF.
KALITTA CONCEDES CHAMPIONSHIP BUT TAKES HOME TOP FUEL TROPHY FROM POMONA - By the end of Sunday’s second round of NHRA Finals eliminations at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, Calif., Steve Torrence had all but earned his second consecutive Top Fuel championship.
He didn’t even have to win the race. All he had to do was avoid incurring a center-line or wall-grazing infraction that would have cost five points. The only question at that point was whether last-standing challenger Doug Kalitta would be saddled with his fifth series runner-up label by 33 points or three points.
This time it was three.
Kalitta has lost out on past championship opportunities by as much as 330 points and by as few as 14. But after a strong season that kept him in the top three virtually the entire way, he would up second again by a measly three points
But the driver of the Mac Tools Dragster came away with one big consolation prize: the race victory, his 47th in all, for a sweep of the two Pomona races and a third victory here in his past four visits.
Beating teammate Richie Crampton in an all-Kalitta Motorsports final round that would be Crampton’s last race for the team, Kalitta showed a buoyance of spirit that salved the letdown of another title miss.
Kalitta won with a 3.716-second elapsed time at a 332.67-mph speed on the 1,000-foot course, topping Crampton’s 4.884, 154.28 after the DHL Dragster lost traction.
“Yeah, I was real proud of the effort we put in today. That was the goal obviously, to get to the final,” Kalitta said. “In qualifying with Steve getting, above us, like 63 points after he ended up whatever the low qualifier was and then the points difference. So three rounds. It was tough to make up, and I don't know where we ended up short, but we gave it all we could. Obviously, it's definitely still on our list to win the championship. And I was just real proud of my guys today, and then coming out of here with the win, I love running here in Pomona, the 60th year with Connie.
“He's out here tuning Richie's car. And I'm running that thing in the final, and he had it all tuned up. And Connie's had that car running pretty good this year. So he's won a couple of races with it and, just real proud of him. And he's an inspiration really to me and everybody on our teams because 60 years of being out here . . . The Winternationals back in the 60s out here. So it's a pretty impressive run he's had, and he still loves it. So, to have somebody like that that's just so passionate, it's infectious with what we got going on.”
As for the championship chase that fell short, Kalitta said, “Obviously, a lot of people have mentioned it to me, I've got a hell of a following. I tell you what, there's a lot of people that love to see me win a championship, and I would love obviously nothing more to get it done one of these years. And so, yeah, it's just on the list. It's one of those things that I would love to be able to accomplish. And I think we're maybe three points behind this year, so some crazy amount. So, it's good that we're competitive. We're coming to these races, we're running good, and we're still taking a shot at coming into the last day of the events, and I'm trying to run for the championship.
“There's a lot to be said for that, and I'm just real proud of everybody on my Mac Tools team. Toyota's been a huge help with us this year with the TRD guys. They're out here busting their butts, working with all of the crew chiefs on our cars, and it's been just something that's really special that they've been helping us with. But yeah, it's a great team effort we got going on there. So I'll just keep digging,” he said.
Asked if he thought a championship will come for him when he really isn't expecting it, Kalitta said, “Well, hopefully, next year would be good. It's good that we've got the momentum that we've got going, and we'll just keep trying, work at it a little harder. It's amazing. You're three points behind at the end of the year, and it's these six races and the opportunities that you missed. I've got a couple of my own thoughts that, I was like, ‘Oh man, I should've had that round, with whatever your reaction time was.’ And it was just a close race. Just those opportunities, you got to just realize that those last six races are real important.”
Kalitta called race day “fun, for sure. Let's see. Probably the most excitement was in the second round [against Justin Ashley]. I think we completely blew that thing up. Just broke traction and just legged it down there, and it was a hell of an explosion. But everybody chipped in, and we got the thing put back together. The third round, the thing went up there, went .73, so I was like, after all of just what happened, as hard as those guys worked on it, it was awesome that ran a .73 and yeah, I was pretty impressed by my guys.
“We were actually the first car back up here because I was impressed. I was like, 'Guys, you realize we just totally leveled this thing, and you're the first car back to the lane.’
"So, just hats off to these guys. And yeah, actually Troy did mention something about, 'Yeah, maybe we should have switched that motor,’ or whatever he was referring to. I'm not sure what he had going on with the car in the tuneup, but it definitely ran better and real proud of those guys. Troy and Rob Flynn, they've stepped this thing up for me, and we've gotten some consistency a little more this year than I think we've had."
After so many close encounters with a championship, Kalitta said “just the will to win” will keep him going.
“And those last six races, you have to take advantage of every opportunity. Again, this year was a good reminder of that. You just get up on the wheel and make sure you don't miss any opportunities. There's a bunch of young guys coming up next year. It's not going to be any easier. They were killing the tree, and you just got to step it up. So there's always something new."
One day something might be new for Kalitta.
But for Sunday, I was the familiar story . . . Kalitta watching someone else win the championship but showing he still is capable with another victory at Pomona. Susan Wade
BECKMAN PUTS ON A SHOW IN NHRA FINALS WIN; HIGHT LOCKS UP FUNNY CAR TITLE - Typically, missing out on a world championship by the narrowest of margins after doing all you can to come out on top would leave a driver feeling down and out.
That would be most people. But not Jack Beckman.
Despite coming up just eight points shy of Robert Hight in the battle for the 2019 Funny Car title in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, Beckman was able to focus on the positives and walk away a happy man. Positives like collecting his first-ever Wally at Pomona in a Funny Car and showcasing to the rest of the field that he has - in his eyes - the best car in the class entering next season.
“I’ve never won Funny Car at Pomona, so that is pretty awesome. I won Super Comp at the Winternationals here twice, but to win a nationals at the finals makes the offseason fantastic,” an elated Beckman said. “They’ve given me such a great race car lately and I stumbled a couple of times. I don’t want to woulda, coulda, shoulda myself in the offseason because Robert (Hight) could do the same thing. (Matt) Hagan could do the same thing. (John) Force could do the same thing. It is what it is.
“We finished a solid second and ended the year with a win. We have a phenomenal car and we’ve got sponsorship for next year because Doug Chandler is going to continue to (sponsor) this. Things are awesome right now. I’m feeling on top of the world to be honest with you.”
Beckman bested the eventual 2019 Funny Car world champion Hight in the final at the 55th annual Auto Club NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway on Sunday in one of the stranger finals of the season.
Having already secured the title, Hight prepared a celebratory burnout for the fans that ended in the car getting stuck midway down the track. After the car stalled, Hight climbed from the stranded machine and leapt over the wall.
On a solo pass, Beckman proceeded to put down the best run of the entire day, running a 3.920-second lap at 323.27 mph in the Infinite Hero Foundation Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat to earn his second victory of the season in his seventh final
“I wasn’t buying (that it stalled) at first. I saw that thing go out there forever and it instantly took me back to what Force did against us two years ago in the semifinals here when Brittany (Force) had just locked up the Top Fuel championship. He said he didn’t even care if he raced the car, he just wanted to do a long smokey burnout for his daughter and he does it and I’m thinking he is just going to keep coasting and he’s backing up at 80 miles-per-hour and I’ll be damned if he didn’t stage and run against us and almost outran us,” Beckman said. “So Robert does a long burnout and I’m like wow, he really took that thing out there. I just have to do my thing and start backing up and I get done backing up and my body goes up and I look out there and see his roof hatch come up and nobody even said anything. I was the first one to notice.
“He’s right in the middle of the lane. So I don’t think he went out there and shut it off because if he did he would have pulled it over against the wall. You don’t want to go out there and get loose at 500 feet and smack into a stationary object. You look at that and you are thinking, ‘should I just idle down the racetrack?’
“It probably would have been the prudent thing to do. But I’m thinking with all these fans that would be so lackluster. I’m glad we legged it out and we went low ET of the day. I think the fans at least got a show out there.”
While Beckman collected the win, Hight was able to secure his third Funny Car world championship thanks to a semifinal win over Beckman’s teammate Matt Hagan. Hight defeated Hagan in a close battle - a 3.977 at 324.59 mph to a 4.015 at 326.95 mph - in the semifinals, giving him just enough to hold off the hard-charging Beckman. Hight also had wins over John Force and Shawn Langdon.
“The most important run of my life was the semifinals against Matt Hagan,” Hight said after the race. “I’ve thought about this before, when it comes down to one run to win a championship, how will you perform? Will you choke? Will you get the job done? You don’t know until you get there. You just keep trying to trick your mind that this is just another run, but you can’t.
“My heart was beating out of my chest when I was staging the car and we got it done. Not to say that the next time it won’t go another way, but this time we got it done. It really would have been a shame to lose the championship after the season that we had.
“We’ve led the points from day one which has been a dream of mine since the Countdown era to lead the thing from start to finish. This has been the most steady year that I’ve ever had. That is a real tribute to the Auto Club team, Jimmy Prock, Chris Cunningham, it is amazing. I’m the luckiest guy in the world to drive this Funny Car.”
Beckman, meanwhile, visited his third final of the Countdown to the Championship and seventh of the season with wins over John Hale, J.R. Todd and Blake Alexander. In each pairing, Beckman proved the class of the field with consistent laps in the 3.90s - 3.946, 3.958 and 3.956 - before putting together the best run of the entire day in the final.
“What really surprised me today was Dickie (Venables) and Hagan. That car was thumping Friday and Saturday and then today something was just missing the first two rounds,” Beckman said. “I thought for sure it was going to be he and I in the final for everything and then they stumbled a little bit both of the first two rounds. The difference was track temperature. When we went out there for Q1 and were No. 2 with a 3.94 and I asked (Dean Antonelli) Guido why so many crew chiefs were missing it and he said it is Pomona. It just doesn’t get run on much and it is very hard to figure out.
“I think our best run might have been E2, that 3.95 considering the track temperature and the amount of available grip, I think that we got everything there. We are so in the center of our tuneup window that when small changes take place the guys know exactly what to touch on all of the timers and controls to make that kind of number come up there.”
While he came up short in the championship, Beckman enters the offseason for the first time in his career riding the momentum of a win and the confidence of knowing that he may have the best car in the field entering next season.
“I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that we had the best Funny Car this year or certainly for the last five races. I think if I had driven better the outcome could have been different,” Beckman said. “We sacrificed some races in the first part of the year to get our clutch package right, to get dialed into the reduced track prep and to get all of our spare parts all sorted out and it paid off.
“You look at once we got into the Countdown the car was thumping from the get go. We were always a factor out there and I just hope (the team) are as fired up about next season as I am.” Larry Crum
ELITE RULES THE DAY; COUGHLIN TAKES WIN, ENDERS CLAIMS PRO STOCK TITLE - You couldn’t have asked for a better day for the Elite Motorsports bunch.
Entering the 55th annual Auto Club NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway one-two in the championship standings, the elite Pro Stock team walked away securing that one-two finish in points while adding a win as Jeg Coughlin picked up his second win of the 2019 season and Erica Enders earned her third championship to cap a strong season for the organization.
“There was a lot of emotion today. The Elite team coming into the race with Erica holding a sizable points lead and me in second, but with a bunch of hounds hot on our heels not only for the championship, but also for second in the points,” Coughlin said. “We did one heck of a job orchestrating the car and it felt really good today to bring home the win. And it was a double win with Erica’s championship. It was a big day for our team.”
Coughlin guided his JEGS.com Chevrolet Camaro through a tricky field on Sunday, ending with a victory over Fernando Cuadra who was seeking his first win in the class. Cuadra left first on the veteran, but Coughlin battled back and coasted to the win with a 6.558-second pass at 210.54 mph. Cuadra started to drift out of the groove, but stayed in it for a 6.604 at 209.72 mph.
“When you are in the final round of the World Finals against Fernando Cuadra, he is not to be taken lightly. There is a lot of hype around him and that would have been his first win. We just had ourselves a good old fashioned drag race,” Coughlin said. “It felt good to get the win in the final and carry that through the winter.”
Coughlin added wins over Joey Grose, Aaron Stanfield and Bo Butner to reach his fourth final of the year and earn the 63rd Wally of his Pro Stock career.
Coughlin had little resistance in dispatching Grose and Stanfield in the first two rounds, but faced a tough race in the semifinals as he earned a holeshot victory over Butner with a 6.588 at 209.98 mph to Butner’s quicker and faster 6.582 at 210.64 mph.
“It was like a fishtail race today. Not one of the first three rounds was real smooth like our four rounds of qualifying,” Coughlin said. “The track was much hotter today and the air was much worse. The crew chiefs were earning their keep without question. We had our hands full the first three rounds and it is very gratifying for the team to get into the finals and secure the No. 2 spot in the points.”
The weekend also included a little bit of controversy as some of the Pro Stock teams attempted to manipulate the ladder to produce favorable matchups in an attempt to knock Enders and Coughlin from the race early and help the cause of their teammates.
One of those moments came in the first round when Enders faced veteran racer Greg Anderson after Anderson placed himself 15th on the ladder. Attempting to improve the stock of his KB Racing teammates, Anderson and Enders produced the best drag race of the entire afternoon with Enders earning the victory with a 6.570 at 210.41 mph to Anderson’s 6.575 at 210.31 mph.
“Obviously they had a strategy and they were trying to execute that strategy as best they could,” Coughlin said. “They didn’t feel like Greg had a shot, obviously, and it worked out well for them to line up next to Erica. I guess the best prevailed.
“As a team we were pretty stoked about it. They had one hell of a drag race. That is two champions just grunting it out together. It is always satisfying (beating KB Racing). They set the mark in the early 2000s and just had unbelievable resources and great talent and couple that together and they were extremely fast for a lot of years and they set the mark in a lot of ways. It is always an honor to race next to them and always great to beat them.”
That first round win helped pave the way for Enders to move through the ladder and secure her third Pro Stock world title. Enders also had a win over Chris McGaha before falling to Cuadra in the semifinals.
“I’m really proud to put a 3x by our name. The first one was epic coming down to the final round and winner take all, it is something we will never forget and being the first was amazing. Then the way that we did it in 2015 we locked it up before we left Las Vegas and coming to Pomona with no weight on our shoulders. This one means a lot because of the valleys that we have been through,” Enders said. “Switching manufacturers, switching rules to electronic fuel injection, it just was a challenge for us. On a personal level, I have struggled mentally in the car and I have struggled in my personal life. It is just an awesome feeling to be back on top and knowing that all of our struggles and all of those hardships, that is the reason that you don’t ever give up.”
Coughlin now enters the offseason riding the high of a race win and Enders will take her championship into the winter break as the pair revel in being the two best cars in a class that is seeing a true renaissance entering its 50th year as a class in the NHRA.
“It is exciting,” Coughlin said. “2020 is going to be the 50th year for Pro Stock. I think the class, right now, is looking extremely good. We’ve got some great talent in here and some great sponsors and I think the fans still enjoy their hot rods from Detroit. That is how the sport started and how Pro Stock started in the late 60s and still carrying over well today.” Larry Crum
SALINAS TAKES SURPRISE CAREER-FIRST PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE VICTORY - In less than 24 hours at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, Pro Stock Motorcycle rookie Jianna Salinas went from fighting to qualify for the field of 16 at the NHRA Finals to holding her first Wally trophy.
The emotional 22-year-old from San Jose celebrated her winning 7.464-second, 180.81-mph victory Sunday on the fabled quarter-mile California dragstrip, saying, “I never would have thought that I would be able to pull this off. I came into today saying, 'you know, whatever happens, happens. Win or lose, I get to end the season on a high note. But just to be here right now in this moment . . . it's just, it's not something I ever thought would happen too soon."
Salinas never would have predicted that she would play such a key role in the championship results. She triggered some drama with her first-round victory. She won over points leader Andrew Hines, who had a foul start but sweated out the rest of the day, worrying about closest challengers Matt Smith and Jerry Savoie swooping in to claim the championship that appeared to be his with an eight-victory domination.
Ironically, Salinas robbed Hines of a chance to compete deep into the afternoon. But she ended up preserving his sixth championship by knocking off both Smith and Savoie – after eliminating Countdown-strong but Countdown-unqualified Steve Johnson in the quarterfinals.
If either Smith or Savoie had won the event, he would have claimed the title.
Neither pulled off the ambush, as Salinas – who had slogged through a season fraught with only two round-wins, six failures to qualify, and a pride-bruising fall from her motorcycle in June during eliminations at Chicago – defeated them both.
She won against Smith in the semifinal as his engine went kaput at about half-track to end his bid for a second straight and fourth overall title. Then Savoie’s season and quest for a second championship ended at the starting line – his Suzuki broke. He staged it anyway, in case Salinas fouled out on the launch. She didn’t, and that allowed Hines to earn another championship.
Facing Hines was a bit intimidating for the No. 13 starter on the Scrappers Racing Suzuki.
"It's race day, and I know I'm new at this, and I'm so fresh,” she said. “He's an amazing racer, but it's race day. You can never go against anybody and think anything can happen, and just it happened."
Salinas called her defeat of Smith “insane.” She said, “Not a single run I made this today was a spectacular run. The final round, that was probably one of the worst runs I've made all weekend, but it got the job done. And sometimes consistency is all you need to win."
Smith had given her some incentives to help him get to his second consecutive title. And she took it. He had said he would pay her $1,000 if she defeated Hines.
"He paid me in cash. I'm going to pay some bills," she said.
Before her run against him, she said Smith told her, “You know what you need to do to get five grand." But she said, “And in my head I was thinking, ‘Well, is $5,000 really beating you? And at the end of the day it's not. I'd do anything for that run. And I made it happen."
Salinas said, "I'll be very honest. It's never really bothered me who's in the other lane, and a lot of that's because I'm so new at this, so the worst that can happen is I lose. But to me, just to be able to qualify is a big deal. I've never really been bothered by who's in the other lane. I'm just there to race my race and focus.
"I felt very lucky for sure. not a single run I made this today was a spectacular run. So, and when it's your day, it's your day. And I mean that a lot of that just goes out to my crew and Mr. Underdahl [Greg], Gary [Stoffer], Karen [Stoffer], Scrappers Racing, my sponsor, True Disruption, just them taking a chance on me and supporting me through this whole process. It's just, it's good to be able to give something back to them."
And Matt Smith gave her something back.
But more importantly, she gave herself something: integrity, satisfaction, and the proof that she can begin 2020 with confidence. Susan Wade
JORDAN VANDERGRIFF EAGER TO RETURN NEXT SEASON, ANDERSON-ENDERS RIVALRY REHEATS, SMITH OFFERS BOUNTY ON HINES, TOP FUEL’S TORRENCE AND FUNNY CAR’S HAGAN SAY THEY’RE CALM
JORDAN VANDERGRIFF PLANNING FOR 2020 - It's full steam ahead for Jordan Vandergriff. Or, at least that's how he sees it.
The loss of his primary sponsor for 2020 isn't a good enough reason for the rookie Top Fuel driver to shelve his anticipation of racing next year.
"We don't have anything right now," Vandergriff said. "Of course, I plan to run next year. So, hopefully, we can find the right partner for next year and possibly even get a full deal next year, so that's what my plan is.
"But I do want to thank D-A for giving me a shot. They got a rookie out here for his rookie year, and they gave me a chance to go to three semifinals and a final. So, I do thank them. I thank them for what they did, and they helped me start my career, so I'm very thankful for that."
For a seasoned veteran, the loss of a major sponsor can be a gut-punch. Vandergriff, who is a rookie of the year candidate, understands this is a part of the game he's going to have to learn to accept.
"I've never really dealt with anything like this," Vandergriff admitted. "It's my rookie year, so I haven't dealt with anything at all even close. So when I got the phone call from Uncle Bob and he told me that they had decided to opt out, I didn't really know how to process it. It took me about a few hours to process what was going on originally. I was just kind of shocked."
Vandergriff admits the reality of the loss hit him as he was driving home from the Dodge NHRA Nationals in Las Vegas, really forced him to process the unenviable situation.
"For me, it was just, okay, well I need to find some money now," Vandergriff said. "I need to go out and find somebody else. So, I'm optimistic for next year, for sure."
Vandergriff represents the next generation of nitro racing, a generation that will be the seasoned veterans a decade from now.
"Well, we're the future of this sport," Vandergriff said. "If you don't keep us out here, it's going to ... I'm not going to say the sport's going to die, but you need to keep the young kids out here because they can be your future for 20 years.
"I plan to be out here for at least 20 years. And I know that the legends of the sport like John Force and Ron Capps and those guys, obviously they're great for the sport. They've been great for years. But they don't have as many years left as I do or Austin Prock does, or even Justin Ashley does. So, I think it's just important.
"And especially because we're so young and we're marketable kids, we can take the sport to new heights, I feel like. So, I need to stay out here. I need to stay at the track."
Losing his primary backer is just another one of those life lessons Vandergriff has learned in his introduction to major league drag racing. What's the most significant lesson he's learned overall?
"Stay humble," Vandergriff said. "Whenever you think you've got it, these cars humble you. They'll kick you right in the butt. And then, of course, even with D-A backing out, nothing's guaranteed. So, just stay humble, stay confident, and keep working, and everything will work out."
Vandergriff's optimism isn't just wishful thinking.
"We've been talking to a few companies," Vandergriff said. "I actually have a potential one coming out today, so it's looking okay. My uncle [Bob Vandergriff Jr.] is one of the best in the business to keep getting companies out here, especially new companies. So, I have all my faith in him and the plans that we have in place. So yeah, I do believe we'll have something for next year." – By Bobby Bennett
‘SHENANIGANS’ MARK FLARE-UP OF PRO STOCK RIVALRY – No. 2-ranked Pro Stock racer and No. 1 qualifier Jeg Coughlin conceded that he has no substantial challenge for points leader Erica Enders, his Elite Motorsports teammate. And although he said he’d pounce on any chance if she stumbles in eliminations, he said he’s supporting her effort.
“If the door opens, we’ll do our best to take advantage of it,” he said, “but I don’t foresee that coming.”
One who definitely isn’t supporting Enders’ quest for her third series crown in six years is four-time champion Greg Anderson, the No. 6-ranked racer who had a mathematical chance at a championship entering the weekend.
He is her first-round opponent in eliminations Sunday, and that isn’t by accident. He purposely qualified in the opposite half of the bracket so he could have a chance of knocking her out of contention at the outset of Sunday’s critical runoffs.
“That guy has hated losing to a girl since the first day I set foot on the scene, and I intend to keep it that way,” Enders said Saturday. She said she’ll be relying on “the best team drag racing has ever seen.”
Coughlin said, “There’s been some trickery, or some shenanigans, going on, if that’s what you want to call it, with the KB team. That’s the way they want to play it. And that’s OK There’s nothing in the world saying you can’t do it, meaning getting qualified opposite of Erica. And they figured they’d probably hit one of the two of us, which could help their cause. Greg’s a good racer, but I know where my money’s at.”
CAT'S IN THE CRADLE - Matt Smith can't help it; he's got too much of his daddy in him.
Smith, the son of outspoken and relentless doorslammer icon Rickie Smith, isn't about to concede jack-squat.
Smith, who came into the AAA NHRA Finals with a remote shot of defending his title, wasn't about to settle for second place as he rode his Denso-sponsored Buell to the quickest pass of the two-wheelers at Pomona. His 6.815 elapsed time at 197.33 miles per hour to put him in the number one position.
Smoking motor be damned, Smith is on a mission this weekend.
"We were basically low of every round except second round, and we got beat by one thou by Karen [Stoffer]," Smith explained. "I think just because we were in the bad lane. I spun the tire too bad, but I mean, we've been good all weekend long. I know everybody's saying the motor's smoking a little bit, but there was no problem there. It's just everything's fresh, and we've got some different rings in trying some stuff, and it's just smoking a little bit, but it's not affecting our performance at all.
Don't let his overbearing multi-tasking responsibilities fool you, Smith is a jack of all trades and determined to master them all.
"Well, the championship scenario is it doesn't matter," Smith explained. "I'm just going out there to run my race and try to turn on a win light each round. And if I get lucky enough tomorrow and turn four of them on and Andrew loses first round, then we've become the champion. So really, I'm just going to go do my job and see what happens."
Smith isn't prepared to go Tonya Harding on point leader Andrew Hines, and whack him on the knee, but he is prepared to reward a fellow racer with a pre-Christmas present if they can do the deed in the first round.
"I've said it all weekend, just fun and games and all. But it's true. I mean, I told everybody, anybody, whoever has Andrew first round, if they beat him, I'll give him $1,000 cash right then," Smith said. "If I go in and win the race and they beat him first round, I give them an additional $5,000. So they can walk out of here with $6,000 in their pocket, and then it'll be worth it for me if it happens." – By Bobby Bennett
DID HE MENTION HE’S THE BEST? – Points leader Steve Torrence, who floundered uncharacteristically in the bottom half of the Top Fuel ladder all weekend, made his move in his final qualifying chance Saturday night and blasted to the top spot. It was quite the opposite of last year when the current champion steamrolled the competition and finished his sweep of every Countdown race here.
And Torrence, who has Brittany Force bearing down on him, along with longsuffering Doug Kalitta, and Torrence’s own father, Billy. Oddly enough, Torrence said he has been calm.
“You know, honestly I think that it's a little bit disturbing how relaxed I've been coming into this weekend and just ... I mean, I've been in this situation before. I've come here with a lead and it didn't pan out the way we wanted it to. And then we came here last year with much less pressure and just we're already the champs and we're able to enjoy this. But you still had the pressure of trying to go perfect [in the six Countdown events],” the Capco Dragster driver said.
“Honestly, you have to just take a step back and look at what we're doing here. This is the final race of the season – one race and you need to go four rounds. It's not different than when you were here in February. You need to go four rounds and try to get started good, and you just have to take each race in itself and try to put all of this in the back of your head and forget about it because tomorrow it's going to be sudden death,” he said.
“I mean, you got Brittany and I, whoever goes the furthest, and then try to keep Doug from jumping on us and try to keep my dad from getting there, too, so you got to have faith in the good Lord and just do your job,” Torrence said.
A second championship – a back-to-back achievement – would be “unbelievable,” he said, “just really a dream come true. I mean, to win one championship is more than you could ask for, and to be able to be in the position to go back to back, I think that it's a testament to the hard work that each one of those [Capco] guys put in. And both teams. I mean, my dad's run 16 races and he's in contention to win, so it just shows what those CAPCO boys are capable of. And you know, there's a couple different kind of people. You have talent and you have work ethic, and then you have talent and work ethic together. And when you have that, you have a championship caliber whatever-it-is. And so, that's what we have.”
Force, rather out of character, made a flippant remark after she won two weeks ago that “Bet Steve-O is shaking in is boots.” He replied, “As far as the comment Brittany made, Brittany's a super-sweet person. She's not a trash-talker. And so, you get out of these things sometimes, you're a little jacked up and liable to say anything. I'm the king of that. So just be humble, do your job, worry about what everybody else says on Monday because when we leave here tomorrow, somebody's going to be the champ.”
Besides, he said, “To be the best you got to beat the best, so she's got to beat us. Ultimately, tomorrow is already written in the book. Everybody has to live it and see where it ends up. The good Lord knows what's going to happen, and we just got to live it out. So I'm going to just rely on my faith and come out here and do the best I can. I got a great group of guys behind me. I know that we got the team to beat.”
Referring to Force crew chief Dave Grubnic, Torrence said, “Grubby's great when the conditions come to his wheelhouse. But these conditions are in our wheelhouse. So like I said, to be the best, you got to beat the best, and we're the best.”
McMILLEN JAZZED FOR NEXT YEAR – Hours before he even knew he would be racing championship contender and No. 3-seeded Doug Kalitta in Sunday’s first round of eliminations, Amalie Oil Dragster owner-driver Terry McMillen said, “I can’t wait for the Winternationals, actually.”
That’s because he has an extended agreement with his primary marketing partner, his car is behaving the way he likes, crew chief Rob Wendland is finding his groove with his crew and his vision for the program, and the team will have a strong parts arsenal to start the 2020 season.
“We're fortunate enough to renew with Amalie Motor Oil for four more years, which is just amazing out here in our sport right now. And then on top of that, Amalie renewed for four more years in Gainesville [to sponsor the popular Gatornationals], which is exciting news, as well. So that means we're going to be out here for four more years, getting bigger and better every day. And it looks like we're going to have the same group going into next year. Rob's here and he's built this program around the people he wanted, and I'm excited about that because our car has shown a lot of potential that we can win a race on any given day and that excites me,” McMillen said.
“You look at this year, we’ve had a good car. We haven't blown up anything. We haven't hurt anything,” he said. “Only thing we've done is timed our parts out. So going into next year we're going to have a bigger and better parts inventory because of the way he ran the car. So I'm excited.”
McMillen has analyzed where in the 24-race schedule and, more importantly, why his season took a turn that left him unqualified for the Countdown after an earnest 24-race effort.
“I started out the year really good and then when we got to Atlanta, we just kind of had some stuff. There's a lot of things to look at. I mean, Rob didn't do anything wrong and nobody did anything wrong,” he said. “But we brought on some new people, four new people. So that adds change and learning curves. And then we had an issue with our cover and realize that going into Brainerd. Since then we've been building on a new cover and getting the car done. You look at the last two races – we took nine points being quick of the round. The potential is there and I like I said, it's just a weird deal.
“Some days Rob was on his game and I wasn't. Some days I was on my game and he wasn't. You know, there's no rhyme or reason. As a driver you go out try to do your job all the time, try to be as consistent as you can all the time. Sometimes I wasn't. As a tuner, he does the same thing. Sometimes it was just a little different set-up than what the car wanted. So it wasn't really anything tragic. It was just the times when we needed to really both be perfect, didn't happen. But now I think we're in a good spot. I think we’ve learned a lot of what was going on to fix those problems he has, so it's only going to get bigger and better from here. I can't complain about that. He’s going to be here for a while, and I'm all excited about that,” McMillen said.
Every racer will say that it takes a sprinkle of luck to win, but McMillen said that for much of this season “we just had no luck. Bottom line is that you have to have a little bit of luck sometimes, and we just weren't able to draw anything from the luck bank. But on the other side of the coin, we both agree, Rob and I, that we got to create our own opportunities and our own luck. So I think we're here now and I think we're in a good place with the car the way it’s running. And so it's really just motivating going into next year. But we got to finish this race first and we just want to win the thing. We're not here to lose.”
McMillen and Wendland have forged a bond that goes beyond the racetrack. Rob's a great guy and we have a lot of good values. We've talked about this before: we're kind of like one of the same in a lot of different areas. But most importantly, we're all about our families, because without them, we really don't have a lot,” McMillen said. “Racing is great, don't get me wrong, I love that. But I want my family to be part of it, and I want his family to be part of it. Our kids are growing up together and who knows? When Rob and I are gone someday, our kids are going to carry this thing on. I mean, I don't know how it's going to go, but ultimately, I know that it’s all about family for me and Rob, as well. And we instill that in our whole entire team. If I had to change that versus going racing, I’m not sure I’d race, because we're gone so much of the year, 24 races. And it's not just the races. It's going to and getting back home – that adds extra days to that 24-race [schedule]. Right now, we got the best of both worlds. Amalie believes in us and in all of our marketing partners, Dart and everybody out there. We're blessed.”
BONUS POINT BONANZA – No. 1 Funny Car qualifier Matt Hagan cashed in big-time on the qualifying bonus points Friday, grabbing the maximum of eight. With that, he made the biggest move in the Funny Car standings. He still was in third place after trimming Robert Hight’s points lead over him from 56 to 48. He picked up two more in Saturday’s first session and wrapped up time trials with 10 altogether. So he’ll start race day just 46 points off Hight’s pace.
Hight will start eliminations Sunday from the No. 5 slot and will meet contender and teammate John Force in Round 1. Hagan will race No. 16 qualifier Jonnie Lindberg in the opening round.
After opening-day passes, Hagan said, “I think that the track was actually a lot better than a lot of guys out there thought. They were shaking their tires. We were actually placing the car kind of towards the outside and finding some different rubber to be in early. My guys have just really got a good job on the wear package of where we're at in our clutch and our combo and getting it down the racetrack. Even up there tonight, Dickie dialed it back. He had more in the box, and he pulled it back just to be safe. Looking at the graphs, it's looking really good.” He said it’s comforting that “we've been on both lanes now and everybody else is struggling. Sometimes you have a race car that'll do that, though. Sometimes, you go to certain tracks and certain guy's cars just act better at certain bumps, certain areas. It's just is a combo of a lot of stuff.”
Hagan was reluctant to talk about how much of a threat he might be to Hight right now, how concerned Hight should be, given Hagan’s momentum.
“I don't know,” Hagan said uncomfortably, careful to be gracious or politically correct. “I think that Robert has got to focus on Robert. You know what I mean? We got to focus on us. I think that's the biggest thing that I've learned over the last 10 years of driving for Don Schumacher: that you got to stay in your lane, man. You got to just focus on what you can control and leave the rest up to what it is, and it's got to take care of itself. Not everybody does that and not everybody's good at that, But it's the only way I've ever been able to internalize it and make it happen and make it positive for me.
He did concede that if he were in Hight’s position, he would have concern.
“If the roles were reversed,” Hagan said, “my butt would be a little puckered. You know what I mean?”
“I feel no pressure right now,” Hagan said after securing the No. 1 position Saturday. “It’s Robert’s to lose. He’s leading, and he’s got to maintain his lead, but that’s why you race on Sunday – because you just never know. I’m excited about it. I feel really confident in my team, and I know they’re going to put a great race car underneath me. I’m just going to drive my ass off, and we’ll see what happens.”
Hagan has come alive since the midway point of the Countdown, and that has attracted attention in the Top Fuel pits, as well.
Amalie Oil Dragster driver Terry McMillen said, “Boy, is he peaking now – and that's what it's all about. I mean, when you can get into that stride to get that momentum going and continue it through, you can win a championship pretty easy.” Then referring to both fuel classes, he said, “It's just going to be an interesting weekend to see how it all plays out, because a lot of great cars out there are still in this mix but at the end of the day it could be anybody's race.”
MARONEY TEAM HAS A FEW GROWING PAINS – Jim Maroney certainly is no newcomer to drag racing, not even to Top Fuel racing. But he’s finding out what he expected to find out: that starting a fresh team with a fresh car comes with its challenges.
After a DNQ in his debut at Las Vegas two weeks ago, he and crew chief Eric Lane made wholesale changes to the American Flowtech Dragster. And they’re starting to see the decision pay off this weekend at Pomona. After the opening day of qualifying, he was 14th in the 16-car order.
But he was bumped from the field Saturday. Nevertheless, Maroney considered his effort a learning experience and said he’s ready to come back here in February for the 2020 season opener.
He and Lane said they made great strides following the Las Vegas event.
“We changed a lot of things coming into this race from Las Vegas,” Lane said. “We stayed on Sunday evening and changed everything we could possibly change. We changed the fuel curve, we changed the clutch, we changed everything we could possibly change, tune-up wise. When we came here, I was feeling very confident because the guys had done a great job. When we did tests [Thursday] working on the car, working on the clutch, I was very confidant. First run .855 at 220 MPH. It was going to run every bit of a low .90 or high .80, which for the first lap on the car would’ve been fantastic. It could’ve gone down the rest of the way, but we said, ‘Stop - we wanted to see what the parts looked like.”
Maroney said, “First round [of Friday qualifying] the car was awesome. We learned a ton, and it was better than we expected. Everything we learned in Las Vegas we brought here, and the car was a rocket. I did not want to step off of it, but that was the plan; a 500-foot shut-off pass. The car ran excellent. It had a respectable 60-foot [incremental time] and great 330 and it put us in the middle of the field the first session.”
He tentatively was in eighth position after the first session with his 4.367-second elapsed time at 190.81 mph.
“We were excited to come back and look at the computer. Everything looked great,” Maroney said. “We did make a few tweaks to tune it up a little bit for the second session with big thing in mind to send it to the finish line.”
Unfortunately, on the second pass Friday, the throttle cable snapped, ending his chance for a full-track run.
“That run we were actually going to push on it a bit harder and the throttle cable broke,” Lane said. “Parts failure is probably one of the biggest problems with having a [Top] Fuel team. Sometimes it’s a tough deal when you’re learning and you have brand-new parts, and that’s the problem sometimes with brand-new parts: they can fail as much as used parts. Conditions [Friday night] were unbelievable.”
He had anticipated that Saturday’s conditions “will be more like the first run, so we have a pretty good basis for going up and making a pretty good run.” He said, “We are just going to try to repeat that and run a low .90 or high .80 and get qualified for Sunday.”
But his best elapsed time of 3.971 seconds couldn’t slip him into the field. Cameron Ferré took the anchor position at 3.955 for Terry Haddock Racing.
“Third round of qualifying was great,” Maroney said. “It was the first full pull on the car. I talked about it with Eric before the run and that we wanted it to go down the track. So he softened it up a little bit, just to make sure it went down the track. It ran good and ran respectable for the very first full pull on the car. We were extremely happy, and we were excited and looking forward to the fourth round of qualifying.”
He said, “In Q4, everything was good until we lost a blower belt. We might have had a hole out which caused the blower belt problem. Overall, we learned, and we built upon what we did in Las Vegas. We improved here, and we are now looking forward to Pomona next year. We’ve learned a few things with the car and have some minor things we want to change, maybe upgrade a few things. We will be at the pro test session at the end of January or the first of February in Phoenix, and we will go on to Pomona.”
Also failing to qualify in Top Fuel were retiring racer Cory McClenathan and fellow veteran Steve Chrisman.
STRUTMASTERS.COM HELPS HADDOCK TEAM – Terry Haddock is the strong-willed, stubborn, and often-self-critical nitro-class driver who earned the 2008 International Hot Rod Association Funny Car championship and is trying to reach the next performance plateau with the National Hot Rod Association. And for this race, Strutmasters.com extended a lifeline to the Temple, Texas-based underdogs.
Haddock drives his own Funny Car, and Top Fuel rookie Cameron Ferré drives the dragster as the lower-budgeted two-car team has served a key role all season in keeping the nitro-class fields consistently stocked. And because he said he knows how difficult it is to meet the financial requirements to do that, for not just one car but both, the team owner said he appreciates the generous gesture by Strutmasters.com owner Chip Lofton.
“It’s hard to stay out here and compete with these big teams, but with great people like Chip Lofton and his Strutmasters.com brand supporting us, we just keep plugging away the only way we know how – the hard way – and we’re OK with that,” Haddock said in a press release posted on a social-media platform.
“We have made it to every race this year with both cars, qualifying more often than not, improving along the way at each event,” he said. “With the help of crew chief Johnny West, I have run career-best numbers and been more consistent than I ever have, and that’s cool. We have had Cameron Ferré in the dragster, and he has done a fantastic job in his rookie season, even joining the ballot as a rookie-of-the-year-award candidate. As I always say, he’s humble, he listens, and he’s a hard-working kid and is going to be a force to be reckoned with before too long on the NHRA tour. To be able to give a chance I never had to someone is pretty gratifying, and I know he appreciates it. We are extremely grateful to Chip and Strutmasters.com getting us through the last race.”
Haddock also thanked the companies that have brought him through the first 23 events on the circuit that runs from February through mid-November. They are Fischer Body Shop, Lou Fusz Automotive Network, Fairway Sports Vehicles, Dave’s Diesel Repair, D.J. Safety, Pro Kote Indy, Tovar Automotive Stupid Fast Racing, Precision Fence, Maura’s Embroidery, JBS Equipment, S&T Truck Repair, MER, and, “all our friends and family,” Haddock interjected.
He said, “We are going to go out there and give it our all this weekend for all these folks. It’s the best way we can say thank-you to them. Getting in the show with both cars and turning on some win lights for them, that would be icing on the cake to a great 2019.”
After Friday qualifying, Haddock was 15th in the Funny Car order, and Ferré was 11th. Ferré made the Top Fuel field, and Haddock missed the cut in Funny Car (as did Paul Lee and Jim Campbell).
Haddock said he wanted “to send a huge thank-you to the all-volunteer crew members” who have stuck with the team throughout the season. He called them “the real MVPs of the bunch” and said, “Without them, none of this would happen. It takes a small army, and my guys and gals are the best.”
PACING HIMSELF – John Force, the 16-time Funny Car champion and driver of the PEAK Chevy Camaro, entered this weekend trailing leader and teammate Robert Hight by 72 points and still in the hunt for the championship that has come down to Sunday.
Force has been low-key about his chances and what this weekend means to him.
“Well, we’re heading into the last event of the season. We have points and a half up for grabs at this event, and anything can happen but this ‘Old Blue’ PEAK Chevy Camaro has been a great race car all year. It’s a fast hot rod, and Brian Corradi, Danny Hood, Tim Fabrisi, and all the young guys on my team, they’ve worked really hard to give me the best car out there,” Force said. “I love being in this car. Doing what I get to do and being out there with all the fans and with our sponsors, it makes me feel alive. “It’s a home track for John Force Racing. We’re just up the freeway in Yorba Linda. It’s one of our main sponsors’ events, too, with Auto Club. So it will be a good weekend to be there with them and hopefully win a championship or two with them and with all our sponsors. I’m really proud of Robert, Brittany, and the Prock kid. Proud of all the crew guys and everyone that keeps us going in our office here and in Brownsburg [Ind.]. We’ll see how this weekend goes.”
That’s pretty bland fare from the storyteller and entertainer extraordinaire. It’s uncharacteristic for the racer, the legend, who displayed over-the-top reactions at both Seattle in July when he recorded his historic 150th win and in September at Indianapolis when he earned his 151st at the sport’s showcase. At Seattle, he was wild and joyous, climbing over a chain-link fence and allowing fans to yank him into the grandstands to celebrate. At Indianapolis, he was weepy and vascillating about which direction to take his future. It all was typical of the moody but endearing Funny Car icon.
But Force – who lost ground in qualifying to No. 1 starter Matt Hagan, the rival he was chasing for at least third place Saturday – was atypically calm.
“What’s the difference? I’m not really sure,” Force said. “I guess the difference is, what I’ve learned is, I have to pace myself. I’ve still been running around all weekend, autograph signings, sponsor meet-and-greets, Night of Champions [at the Wally Parks Drag Racing and Motorsports Museum at Pomona]. And last week, the Vegas race and SEMA until Wednesday. We came back and went to L.A. on Thursday for TV. So I’m still doing it all. I’m still excited, but I’m pacing myself as much as possible.”
Force has two runner-up finishes, at Bristol and Reading, and five No. 1 qualifiers this season. He leads his class in both victories and No. 1 starts (16 each) at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, with eight at the Finals. He has won at this venue more times than at any other track on the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series tour. In 2013, the last time he won the championship, Force qualified first and had a runner-up finish at the Finals, and with a 140-point lead over Matt Hagan, he was able to hold on for his 16th title.
LANGDON WANTS TO WIN HERE IN BOTH FUEL CLASSES – Shawn Langdon will be making his 48th Funny Car start, and he’s hoping he can close his second season in the class with a victory in the Global Electronic Technology Toyota Camry. That would put among some elite company.
Since 2010, Langdon has two Top Fuel victories at this event, in his 2013 championship season and in 2015, and two runner-up finishes (2010, 2017).
“There are a lot of legends that have both a Top Fuel and Funny Car win at the Auto Club Finals. I would definitely like to add my name to that list,” Langdon said. “We just need a couple of good runs in qualifying, and then I want to see four win lights on Sunday.”
“I love racing at Pomona. I am a California guy,” the Mira Loma native and Jurupa Valley High School graduate who lives in Danville, Ind., now. “I have lots of people that will be coming out to support me and it will be a fun weekend, no matter what. You want to finish the last race of the season on a high note. That is the race that is going to hang with you over the off-season. I feel really good about my chances with this Global Electronic Technology team.”
He said that following his Countdown victory at St. Louis, “we just hit a tough stretch of first-round opponents. We didn’t get off to a great start in qualifying, and they set us up to have to be really aggressive on race day. We love to be aggressive – don’t get me wrong but things didn’t go our way. We are going to get after it in Pomona I can guarantee you that.”
“We made a lot of progress with the Global Electronic Technology Camry this season,” said Langdon. “Getting the win at the Four-Wide race in Charlotte and winning in St Louis during the Countdown were two huge plusses. We got the car to come around before Epping and finished the season with some momentum. Of course, we would have liked to have gotten more wins, but this class has been very tough this season.”
STEVE TORRENCE HAS LONG LINE OF PRETENDERS TO HIS THRONE, HIGHT ENJOYING RACING AT SPONSOR’S EVENT AND VENUE, ENDERS AND HINES IN PRIME SPOTS, CORY MAC HAS SOME PARTING IDEAS
GET IN LINE . . . BEHIND TORRENCE – Reigning champion Steve Torrence started the season at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, Calif., with confident Top Fuel rookie Austin Prock telling him that Friday night, after only the second qualifying pass of his career, “I’m coming for you.”
As the season draws to an electrifying close right back here at this same racetrack nine months later in the Auto Club Finals, Torrence isn’t overly concerned about Prock, who’s ranked sixth, coming for him. He has a handful of others in line ahead of Prock who are eager and able to spoil the nine-victory, 14-final-round effort the Capco Dragster driver has made this year.
Brittany Force, the Advance Auto Parts Dragster driver for her father’s race team, is a dangerous 16 points behind Torrence. She aced him out of the 2017 championship, one he thought his eight victories and three runner-up finishes and second-half points domination would help him secure. He came back in 2018 and won every Countdown race to make sure neither Force nor anyone else gave him a November surprise. But she is hoping her numbers indicate the title is waiting for her again this year.
She has qualified No. 1 eight times, run quick time of the event at 10 races, and has posted top speed of the meet seven times. All are category bests. She has momentum from her victory two weeks ago at Las Vegas and her distinction as the first Top Fuel driver since Tony Schumacher to simultaneously own the national performance records for elapsed time (3.623 seconds) and speed (338.17 mph). Now she wants to become just the 10th driver in Top Fuel history to win multiple championships.
“I’m very confident going into Pomona this weekend,” Force said. Torrence understandably brags about his “Capco Boys,” and she has her version: “I’m lucky to have David Grubnic and Mac Savage in my corner and the eight other guys around me who are the most dedicated, hard-working guys I know. The key to this season has been the support system I have around me. I’m proud to be in the fight with them and wouldn’t choose anyone else going into Pomona.”
Force said, “We really turned a corner at the right time, and we’ve made some big moves this season. The start of the Countdown, at Reading, that seemed to be the turning point for us. We set the national E.T. record, qualified No. 1, and made a semifinal-round appearance. Charlotte, we qualified [in the] top three and made another semifinal-round appearance. Vegas was a big weekend for our Advance Auto Parts team. We moved up to second in points and came home with our second win of the season. Now there’s only one race left, and we are looking to finish this year off with a championship.
“The biggest difference this time around is I’ve been in the hunt for a championship before,” she said, “so I have a better idea of how to deal with the pressure.” Although since claiming her title in 2017 she has changed crew chiefs, crews, engine and drivetrain components, and her primary sponsor, she’s ready to knock off Torrence again.
But she isn’t the only one Torrence is keeping an eye on. Trailing him by a mere 55 points – with a points-and-a-half system in effect – is long-overdue Doug Kalitta.
“You start every season with one goal, and that is to win the world championship,” Kalitta, driver of the Mac Tools Dragster, said. “You have to be in contention in Pomona at the Auto Club Finals to achieve that goal.”
And he knows how numbers can give a false sense of comfort. In 2005, after two straight years as series runner-up, he led the standings for 10 weeks but wound up third in the end. In 2006, he topped the leaderboard for 10 weeks and was perfect in five finals, but Tony Schumacher crushed his opportunity in the final pass of the season by winning the race and setting the national record that carried 20 points to edge out Kalitta for the title by 14 points. In 2014, Kalitta led in points for 16 weeks but being successful in only two of 11 final rounds played into his fifth-place finish. Two years later, he was tops in Top Fuel for seven weeks in mid-season and won four of six final-round chances but for the fourth time was second in the year-end standings. So he’s more than ready to halt this pattern.
“We have had a really strong season, and I feel as confident as ever that we can race for this championship,” Kalitta said. “We had some bad luck in Las Vegas, but we put that behind us.”
Two weeks ago at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a broken connection wire in the safety box broke during the burnout, causing the parachutes to deploy and cutting off the engine – all against Steve Torrence. It was a colossal opportunity missed, but Kalitta said instead of dwelling on that, his team is “focusing all our energy on winning this last race.”
Kalitta entered this weekend with two final round appearances in the Countdown to complement that semifinal finish at Las Vegas. He only has one first-round loss at Dallas – same as Torrence and Mike Salinas, who was No. 4 at the time.
He has been in the top five in the standings all season, and he said of this energy surrounding the Finals, “This is pretty exciting for me, just to have another opportunity to finish the Countdown and see how it ends up. We worked hard to have a good position to open the playoffs and we’ve stayed in the top three throughout with a chance to win it at Pomona. My guys are really working their tails off on my Mac Tools Toyota, and it’s running well. It’s what it’s all about for my team and everybody out here. So we’re going to give it our best. We can’t control what everyone else does, so we’re just to go out and try to win the race.
“We have gone rounds at every Countdown race this year. It has been a wide-open battle, and we have a really good shot at this championship,” Kalitta said. “We need to run well in qualifying and get some of those bonus points. Qualifying on Friday and Saturday will be critical to setting us up for success on race day.
“We run really well at Pomona, and I would love to book-end this season with a win here this weekend to go along with our win at the Winternationals. The Southern California fans are great, and this track has so much history. I have two tough competitors in front of me in the points. We are just going to take care of our business, and hopefully we can catch them early on race day. We aren’t going to save anything for the off-season, that’s for sure,” he said.
At this race, Kalitta has a 2016 victory and runner-up finishes in 2013 and 1999. So for 20 years, he has known the quick way down this dragstrip. He also was top qualifier in 2004 and 2006. At the moment, he’s 13th with Saturday qualifying sessions still left to improve in the order. Leah Pritchett has low E.T. at the moment, with the rest of the top-half lineup reading (in order) Mike Salinas, Billy Torrence, Jordan Vandergriff, Brittany Force, Antron Brown, Richie Crampton, and Scott Palmer.
So Friday one other threat became more real for Steve Torrence: father Billy Torrence. Dad, a part-time racer, was a surprise Countdown qualifier at No. 10 and has won twice in the six-race playoffs to climb to No. 4. He entered this event 86 points behind his son and is driving an identically set-up car. Billy Torrence has said repeatedly that he is racing the second family dragster “by invitation only.” John Force, referring to Tony Pedregon, used to joke, “I hired my own assassin.” Can Steve Torrence say he invited his own assassin?
SHINE AND SHOW FOR HIGHT? – Auto Club Chevy Camaro racer Robert Hight said earlier this season, at St. Louis, that’s it’s “pretty exciting” to excel at his sponsor’s event. He said he likes taking the chance “to shine and show off.” Three of the six Countdown races are AAA-sponsored events, but Hight said that puts no pressure on him. He said the result is the opposite: “They keep me hoppin’, and it’s easier. It makes your days go by quicker. You’re not thinking about all the stuff you could be thinking about. You stay busy and it usually goes well.”
This definitely is the time he needs for everything to go well. It’s the last race of the season. He’s in the catbird seat at the moment, and he needs to protect his 46-point lead over No. 2 Jack Beckman if he is to earn his third Funny Car championship.
“I've got three champions right behind me. All of them have won championships, and they're breathing down my neck. That right there is some pressure. You have to be up for it,” Hight said, “and we all have to perform. The car has to perform. I've got to perform. But we just need to keep doing what we've done all season long. You can't change what got you here.
“This Auto Club Chevy Camaro team has had an incredible season. Jimmy Prock, Chris Cunningham, and all of my guys, this championship is what we’re all going for. We missed it by ‘that much’ last season, which makes us want it even more. Vegas wasn’t what we hoped for,” Hight said, alluding to his second-round defeat by his closest rival. “But we had a great race car, and we’re still in the points lead, which gives us a lot of confidence. It’s the final race of the season this weekend, and with points and a half, anything can happen. I think it’s really going to come down to race day, and this Auto Club team is ready.”
Crew chief Prock backed him up. In a video interview with John Kernan for www.nhra.com, Prock said, “We’ve got to go in there and do our job, get the car to the final, and everything should be all right. I have all the faith in our driver and our crew. I wouldn’t trade ‘em for anybody.”
He allowed that “anybody who’s involved in this is a little anxious . . . but . . . it’s a great chance for us.”
Prock did mention that “Pomona doesn’t make this any easier.” He called Auto Club Raceway “one of the more difficult tracks we run on” because of “issues in both lanes.”
Prock, Hight, and crew mastered the challenge here in February, winning the Winternationals and launching a season in which he led the standings through 18 consecutive events and secured the No. 1 seeding for the Countdown. This year, which Hight has called his best-ever, has produced a career-best six victories, including a milestone 50th at Sonoma, Calif., on the track close to his hometown of Alturas.
Hight also is a two-time runner-up and an eight-time top qualifier. And he has carried his domination through the Countdown, despite losing his lead for a week and losing to 2019 nemesis Beckman in the quarterfinals.
In the Countdown, Hight has qualified in the top five three times, advanced to two semifinals, and won at Charlotte. But he said earlier that he thinks it will take more – and he’s down to one last chance to claim Victory No. 7 and Title No. 3.
Should Hight, who owns the most Countdown victories by any Funny Car driver (12), win the championship, he would become the first driver to earn a crown from both the No. 10 and final starting position and the No. 1 seeding. Hight will continue to inspire racers with his 2009 feat of sliding into the playoffs at No. 10 and going on a rampage to earn his first championship. Top Fuel’s Billy Torrence has the chance to repeat that accomplishment this year.
“We’re in Pomona this weekend and it’s the final race of the season. There’s added excitement because it’s a home race and a sponsor race with Auto Club. So it’ll be busy, but it will keep me focused and keep me from getting too much inside my head. I’m hoping we can add another win to our resume and get that championship title again for Auto Club,” he said. “Last year was so close, and it went down to the last day. And I think that’s going to be the case this weekend, too: down to the final pass. This Funny Car class is so tight and so competitive, and anything can happen, but we’re all ready to take on the challenge.
“You've got to embrace this," Hight said. "I believe we're going to qualify well, make good runs in qualifying, try to get some points, and try to set ourselves up for the best possible scenario on Sunday."
Hight has four victories and three No. 1 qualifiers at this racetrack and has the track speed record (336.99 mph). Hight is 12th in the order overnight, while the bonus points went to Matt Hagan (four), Tim Wilkerson (three), Shawn Langdon (two), and Tommy Johnson Jr. (one).
HINES ‘FEELING PRETTY GOOD’ – Andrew Hines is a five-time champion and the Pro Stock Motorcycle class’ all-time victories leader with 56 trophies. But the points leader, whose relinquished the lead only once (at Reading), said, “I’ve never had a season like this,” said Hines, who has 56 career victories. “I’ve been doing this [for] 18 years, and to have the success we’ve had this year, it’s blown everything out of the water. We couldn’t have scripted it any better. It’s been a fun atmosphere this year, and hopefully we can cap it off with a big trophy and one heck of a celebration. Harley-Davidson has pushed me to be even better and that support really rejuvenated me.”
The Harley-Davidson Street Rod rider has earned a career-best eight victories in 10 final-round appearances this season. He started strong, with seven victories at the first nine races. That has given him a commanding 115-point lead at the outset of the Finals. Hines can clinch his sixth championship simply by winning in the first round Sunday, although several other scenarios could pave the way for him. Still, the points-and-a-half scenario in play for this season finale means he has not clinched yet officially.
Jerry Savoie is second in points, 115 back of Hines heading into Pomona, and his Screamin’ Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson teammate Eddie Krawiec and Matt Smith trail Hines by 116 and 117 points, respectively.
Whatever happens, Hines said, “It has been a fantastic year. I’m feeling pretty good. Vegas went the right way for me. Luckily, I’ve been able to do my job and get a holeshot win at each of the last four races. We ran well in Charlotte, but we’ve just been a tick off. We spent a bunch of time doing some research early in the week, and we’re going to keep plugging away. We’ve always run well at Pomona in the past, so we’ll try to play off that. We want to put together a good showing as a team.”
As always, though, Hines said, “It’s business as usual for me. We’ll look to put together a good start in qualifying. But we’re just confident because we’ve got a good bike. When you look at it this season, the bike has pretty much been flawless. We’re going to try to get after it this weekend and put on a good show. It’s the home track for Vance & Hines, so there will be a lot of people there. It’s going to be cool to have friends and family there, so hopefully we can perform well for them.”
Hines has advanced to the semifinals or better at the last four playoff races, and he won at Charlotte. He has three career Pomona victories. Teammates Krawiec and Angelle Sampey have seven combined victories at this historic venue.
With two more qualifying chances Saturday, Hines is fourth provisionally, behind EBR rider Matt Smith and the White Alligator Racing Suzuki tandem of Karen Stioffer and Jerry Savoie.
ENDERS POISED AND READY – Earning a Pro Stock championship requires hard work over and over and over again, long hours for a crew, perfect focus at least during most of the 24 racing weekends, and a suitable chemistry. In another sense, it’s rather simple.
“My guys just keep giving me a really good race car,” points leader Erica Enders, who’s poised to claim a third championship, said.
She entered the weekend with a 92-point advantage over five-time series champion Jeg Coughlin.
“Jeg is a legend for a reason and, in my opinion, the best driver I’ve ever seen. I’m humbled to be his teammate and drive alongside him,” the Elite Performance headliner said. “We’ve been in these situations before, and I feel like it’s something we’re good at. Everything we’ve worked for comes down to this event – and what a position to be in. You’ve got to expect great things, and I can confidently say we’re very prepared leading up to this point.”
Enders had no victories but three final-round appearances in the so-called “regular season.” Her two victories have come during the Countdown – the perfect time to gather momentum. She won at St. Louis and at the most recent event, at Las Vegas. She has been No. 1 qualifier at three of the five playoff races, and second at the other two. Although it doesn’t gain her any precious points, Enders recorded the 150th victory for NHRA pro females.
“Momentum is huge in this sport,” Enders said. “At the beginning of the year, we had some pretty deep valleys, and we had to claw our way out of them. [Team owner] Richard Freeman has put us in position to do the best we can. Peaking at the right time is crucial. We’re going to go out to Pomona to win the race. We’re going to dig deep, and I’m excited about the opportunity.”
Not so fast, Coughlin might say. He has won six times at Pomona – but hasn’t managed a Countdown victory since 2013.
"We had a decent regular season, and we're doing a bit better in the Countdown to the Championship but there are areas where we feel we could have done more," the 62-time winner said. “You can always find those moments where you just weren't as strong as you needed to be and had rounds you could have won but didn't. That's just the way this sport goes. Things are pretty simple now: Just finish as strong as we can and see where everything ends up."
His Friday ended up with him grabbing the tentative No. 1 qualifying position with a 6.533-second elapsed time that was a mere five-thousandths of a second quicker than Enders’ effort (6.538).
“Erica is in a great spot. There's no question about it. Would love to flip spots, but that's not going to happen,” he said. “I don't see her or that team making any mistakes between now and Sunday. So I'd say they're in a really good spot to win in her third Pro Stock championship. And we're in her corner to win it. If something odd would happen and the opportunity is there, you know, we're going to be there for the taking, hopefully.”
Coughlin said, “So many things are out of your control. I've raced in Lucas Oil series for years and won a championship and challenged for a few more and lost a few right here at Pomona on the final day of the year and lost two championships in the final day of '97, so I know what the close battles feel like on both sides.” He said he has been ahead, “and we've come from behind here the first year of the Countdown in '07, just unbelievable unfolding in front of us with Anderson and Connolly going out.
He said his goal for the weekend “really is just to get out and make some good quality runs from Friday through Sunday. And a goal, naturally, is to win the race, period. And if things were to fall our way, hopefully we're there to pick it up. And shame on us if we're not.”
Enders has other drivers to look out for this weekend. Bo Butner, the 2017 champ, is 113 points behind her. Multi-time champ Jason Line, with whom she battled to the final pass to earn her first crown, is 116 points out of first place. Matt Hartford is just two points behind Line, 118 points off Enders’ pace. All need near-miraculous finishes to sneak past Enders.
SMITH LEADS BIKE CLASS IN QUALIFYING – Current Pro Stock Motorcycle champion Matt Smith came here last year and qualified No. 1, won the race, and clinched the Pro Stock Motorcycle championship. And that’s what he would love to do again.
“We’re going to try to duplicate that same scenario: qualify No. 1, win four rounds, win the race. And if Andrew messes up first round, we’ll capitalize on it. If not, we’ll finish second. That’s our goal right now. That’s the two scenarios I have: If I can’t be first, I want to be second,” Smith said after securing the provisional No. 1 qualifying spot Friday with a 6.815-second quarter-mile pass.
The Denso / Stockseth EBR racer said the class-best pass “felt good” and that “the track is a little green right now. [It] should get better as the weekend goes, but this motorcycle right now is pretty hateful. ‘Pretty hateful’ - it’s a down-South term. Hateful means just mean. The motorcycle's running mean right now. We can't race scared. We just got to go for everything and get every point we can, get every win light we can, and just do the best we can.
“All in all, we got something for them this weekend,” he said.
“You’ve got 10 good bikes out there right now. Any of the top 10 bikes could win a race. The Suzukis are running really good. I still feel like they have a little bit of an advantage on us. It’s not showing because of my performance, because I’m just ahead of the V-Twin guys guys, but I still think they have an advantage over the rest of the field. But we're going to do our best and just try to keep running like we are and see if we can win this thing. I love Pomona. I love Pomona. I mean, I've always run good here.”
Smith’s father, Rickie Smith, who has won a roomful of trophies in various series and classes, has been a big inspiration to him. But he said he never envisioned being a multi-time champion like his father.
“I just wanted to race and be like him. He's probably the greatest of all time in door cars. I'll never be the greatest of all time in motorcycles, but I just want to put my footprint down. We've won three championships, and we'll win some more. I've got a good enough bike to win some more. We're just going to do our best, just go and try to win some races and just make my dad proud.”
MEMORABLE COUNTDOWN COMEBACKS – Veteran public-relations representative Elon Werner has compiled a chronicle of some of the sport’s more memorable comebacks in the Countdown era. Here are the ones he selected:
2007 when Tony Schumacher overtook "Hot Rod" Fuller in Top Fuel
2007 when Matt Smith overtook Andrew Hines in Pro Stock Bike
2008 when Eddie Krawiec overtook Matt Smith in Pro Stock Bike
2010 when John Force overtook Matt Hagan in Funny Car
2010 when L.E. Tonglet overtook Andrew Hines in Pro Stock Bike
2011 when Del Worsham overtook Spencer Massey in Top Fuel
2016 when Jerry Savoie overtook Andrew Hines in Pro Stock Bike
2017 when Brittany Force overtook Steve Torrence in Top Fuel
2017 when Bo Butner overtook Greg Anderson in Pro Stock
SCARY MOMENT - During the first round of qualifying at the Auto Club NHRA Nationals in Pomona, Calif., Top Alcohol Dragster driver Fred Hanssen’s 1997 Hadman dragster crossed the center line then made contact with the wall before coming to a rest on its side.
The incident was apparently caused by a tire failure which then took out the wing.
Hanssen was alert and responsive. He was transported to a local hospital for further evaluation.
Watch the video below to watch the action from the opposite lane, courtesy of a Go-Pro mounted in Ron Anderson's TAD.
NO SCHU, NO SERVICE – Just as when the drag-racing community convened here at Pomona in February, the Top Fuel class is doing so without eight-time champion Tony Schumacher, whose 19-year U.S. Army sponsorship vanished at the end of the 2018 season. He hasn’t competed since this race a year ago, when he was runner-up to Steve Torrence and finished second in the final standings.
But Schumacher insists he remains committed to driving again – and soon, he hopes. And he still said he and his Don Schumacher Racing marketing experts are more interested in finding a compatible business partner with whom the race team can work on a B2B basis.
“So it’s not about sticking the name on the car and running a bunch of laps,” Tony Schumacher said. “It’s about the personal aspect of the sport. That’s where the Army benefitted the most. It’s what do we do to get people out and be able to talk. You know, back in the day, kids didn’t want to walk into a recruiting station, because they thought if they walked in and the door closed, they were in the Army. And out here they can go off and talk to a soldier and say, ‘Look, I’m not going to join the Army, but if I did…’ And that is [priceless] for a company trying to grow.
“We have great companies in our partners with Napa, and Pennzoil and Shell and Mopar. All these companies out there– you want to sit in a room with the biggest of the big? These guys are out here, and that’s what we’re looking for. The right person, not just anybody,” he said.
The question has dogged him all year: “Are you close to signing a deal?” And Schumacher is ready for it, tiresome though it might be to hear.
“I can tell you we work on it every day. We have proposals out,” he said. “This is the best sport. It almost breaks my heart that any car would sit because, you know, I look up in the stands and great people, the car counts are always high and we’re sitting without a deal. We got caught a little bit off guard. I mean, to be honest, at the end of the year when the Army announced they were leaving, it kind of took us by surprise. It’s been a process because we had that for 19 years. It was a long time. We’re trying to find the right fit.
“I look forward to coming back out here. I miss it. I miss it every day,” he said. “I enjoy coming out, working up here in the [public-address] booth and dealing with Fox and the guys, but in reality, I belong in that race car.”
Schumacher said, “I’ve got to get back out there. We’re working it every day. If y’all got a buddy that happens to have a bunch of millions sitting in their pocket and they’re looking around going, ‘I don’t know what to do with this’ . . . Our car, man! Call us. Call my dad. We’ve got great people. We’re working on it, and we’ll get something. That’s for sure.
“Over 19 years we learned how to, it was the Army, but we learned how to build a company. We learned how to take a company that wants to go to market and grow, and that’s what we’re looking at. Some of the proposals we’ve got out there, it’s not just putting the name on the side of the car, it’s what do they want to do? Do they want to expand and go from a bunch of stores to a bunch more? How do we do that? What’s our program? How are we going to help them?” he said.
“You know, drag racing and NHRA has been a very special sport to me,” he said. “As much as I hate not being in a seat, I love being out here watching the sport go on. It was really great to see Snake bring a driver out [finding sponsorship for Austin Prock], bring a program from where he was. It’s awesome, and that’s what we’re looking for. We’re looking for the youth. We watch the guys in the Pro Mods. We watch the guys in the Top Alcohol Dragsters and Funny Cars. We watch the youth, and bringing them up into this sport, which everybody that’s in that alcohol ranks, they’re aspiring to be here so bad. That’s where we all came from. So great young drivers – and yes I look forward to having my opportunity to race them and get back out here and do my job.”
In the meantime, Schumacher said he has been “staying in shape. You’re waiting for that phone call every week, so you have to do what you have to do. These races are decided by inches so being in shape physically and mentally, it’s an important part of it. So I stay in the gym, and I stay prepared.” He said in the approximately 200 speeches he delivers every year, he always says, “Over- prepare and then go with the flow,” and he said, “I think that’s the key.
‘THE PROCK KID’ STILL IMPRESSING – John Force still refers to his newest Top Fuel driver Austin Prock as “the Prock kid.” But ever since he made an impressive drag-racing debut here at Auto Club Raceway nine months ago, “Austin Prock” is a name fans definitely have remembered all season long. He made a name for himself as a confident, fearless, and winning rookie driver of the Montana Brand / Rocky Mountain Twist Dragster.
With a refreshingly energetic approach and a victory at Seattle in early August that overshadows his .500 performance so far (22-22 in eliminatons), the 24-year-old is the frontrunner in the competition for the Auto Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award. The honor recognizes the sport’s top professional rookie (regardless of category).
Prock, the only rookie in any pro class to qualify for the Countdown to the Championship, is No. 6 in the standings, just 23 points away from scoring his targeted top-five finish.
“I’m just proud of how far this Montana Brand / Rocky Mountain Twist team has come and how we’ve been doing lately. You know, we changed up crew chiefs earlier this year and had to learn and figure out what worked for us. But Mike Green and Ronnie Thompson, they’ve done one hell of a job,” Prock said.
They have directed him to five semifinal appearances, a career-best elapsed time of 3.688 seconds and a top speed of 334.40 mph. His own achievements aside, Prock said he’s cheering on Brittany Force as she makes her case this weekend for a second Top Fuel title in three years. (Ironically, she’s the driver on whose crew he worked last season, and she’s the first opponent he defeated – in his first pass in race-day competition.)
“We didn’t get the win in Vegas,” he said, referring to the most recent event, “but our teammate Brittany Force did. And ’m hoping she can wrap this championship up for John Force Racing. It’s been one heck of a year.”
Should he be named rookie of the year, Prock would become the sixth team driver to be so honored. Robert Hight was the first, in 2005. Following him were Ashley Force Hood (2007), Mike Neff (2008), Courtney Force (2012), and Brittany Force (2013). Prock also is aiming to become the seventh John Force Racing driver to win at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona and the sixth at the Finals event. Teammates John Force, Hight, and Brittany Force have all raced to the winners circle, as well as past JFR drivers Courtney Force, Tony Pedregon, and Neff.
Another irony for Prock is that when he recorded a quarterfinal finish at the Winternationals here in February, he left in sixth place – right where is is now, entering the season finale.
He said he’s excited to be at this race: “I’m excited [but] bummed the year’s already closing. I’m excited to get back to where I got my start and hopefully turn on some win lights to move up into the top five in points. We’re really close to achieving that goal this year, and I feel like if we do have another strong weekend, we’ll lock up that Rookie of the Year award. It’s been an amazing year with this Montana Brand / Rocky Mountain Twist team, and I can’t wait to see how we round out the year this weekend.”
CREW EXCITED TO GIVE MARONEY BETTER WEEKEND – Jim Maroney is ready to “make some good, solid runs” this weekend and qualify, something mechanical malfunctions prevented him from doing in his return to the dragstrip at Las Vegas two weeks ago. The independent Top Fuel racer from Gilbert, Ariz., is funded in part by Dixxon Flannel Company and Firehouse Subs.
Eric Lane tunes the car, but the crew primarily is composed of long-time volunteer crew members who have helped Maroney for years, throughout his successful nostalgia-racing career.
“The team is really excited to get back at it,” Maroney said. “I couldn’t get my son to work on his sprint car – he just wants to go Top Fuel racing. The team is excited to build upon what we learned in Las Vegas. All the guys want to make some good solid runs and make it into the show Sunday. I think we are beginning with a good foundation. We just want to do the best we can do.”
CRAMPTON WANTS TO BOOK-END HIS PLAYOFF WITH ANOTHER VICTORY – Richie Crampton, driver of the DHL / Kalitta Air Dragster, is correct in saying that he has been handed some tough first-round draws. He has managed to score some triumphs, starting with a Gatornationals victory in March. And he said he would like to a finish this Countdown just like he started it – by winning. Crampton kicked off the six-race Countdown with a victory at Reading, Pa.
“We got off of a great start in Reading but since then we have just hit a tough stretch. We have qualified pretty well, but on race day things haven’t gone our way, for some reason,” Crampton said. “Everyone on this DHL team is working their tails off, but this Countdown has been tough for a lot of the Top Fuel teams.
“This DHL team has gotten some tough draws in the first round,” he said. Five times he has started against Terry McMillen. “We have had to race our teammate Doug Kalitta on more than a few occasions [three times, including twice in the Countdown – far fewer than the eight times that happened in 2018]. - as well as teams that are Countdown-contending teams. There are no more easy first-round wins. We have lost races by a few thousandths of a second after making our best run of the weekend. There is nothing to hang your head on when that happens. We just get right back to work.”
Crampton’s midweek job is as a fabricator for Morgan Lucas Racing. So he can appreciate how the car works and how team owner and crew chief Connie Kalitta might think. “I love racing Connie’s Top Fuel dragster,” Crampton said. “There is a lot of pressure but also a lot of pride. He is a legend as a driver and crew chief. I know every time I get behind the wheel, I have a chance to go low or win the race. He has forgotten more about drag racing than I know. This DHL team will never give up, and we are looking forward to a strong showing at the Auto Club Finals. “You can’t beat the atmosphere at the Auto Club Raceway. You have snowcapped mountains in the background. The fans are awesome. There is a ton of history in Southern California. Getting a win at the Auto Club Finals is a big deal,” he said.
I SHOULD DO WHAT?! – Oh dear . . . Maybe it’s a wise move for Top Fuel racer Cameron Ferré not to take the advice of close buddy, sportsman-racing veteran, and “Racers in Rental Cars” podcast co-host Don O’Neal.
All racers are trying to find a way to stand out among the crowd and get attention for their sponsors or attract a sponsor. But in the most recent episode of “Racers in Rental Cars,” O’Neal came up with a sure-fire way to attract attention – and spark a melee. Just before the Las Vegas race two weeks ago, O’Neal pondered the universal lament by racers then, in tongue-in-cheek fashion, suggested an ingenious move:
Don O’Neal: “What can you do when you’re a racer and you’re trying to get your name out there, doing anything and everything . . .You’re basically becoming your own . . . let’s just call it ‘pimp’ for yourself . . . to try to get attention. . . . Seriously, what do you have to do? What can you do? What should you do? Of course, there’s always ‘You shouldn’t grab a driver by the waist and body-slam him to the ground on pit road.’
Cameron Ferré: “I’m thinking about it.”
DO: “Dude, I’m totally thinking if you want to get some serious TV coverage, you get your one and only qualifier that you’ll probably do, get out of the car, and run over and punch whoever it is that’s –
CF: “Just whoever’s standing there?”
DO: “Just the poor soul who ever ended up being in the performance order to run beside you–”
CF: “Like get down like I know what I’m talking about with football, like I’m in a football stance? With my luck – I’m so little – it’d be like one of the bigger dudes, like Terry McMillen, and I’d just go pffftd and I’d fall over.”
DO: “Dude, it’s Halloween week in Vegas. You can totally pull it off, like you’re going to be a superhero. Get a cape or something. . . . I’m telling you: we would get some TV coverage. I’m telling you – if you get out of your car and throw your hands in the air like you’re Rocky Balboa and run over and just jump on somebody’s back.”
CF: “Like a koala?”
DO: “Dude – Like a kangaroo – just hop in somebody’s pouch. Something. Say you’re swapping cars. Go over and jump in their car.”
What happened on the podcast stayed on the podcast.
SHORTER SCHEDULE FINE, CORY MAC SAYS – A bit of a debate has been going on in Formula 1 racing after the announcement of two additional races in 2020, in Vietnam and The Netherlands. That brings the international tour to 22 races, two fewer than drag racing endures. Max Verstappen warned that it might trigger divorces among crew members, and Jacques Villeneuve predicted that “the calendar is becoming too long and boring. The new owners of the championship see more races as more income, and that’s all that excites them. The calendar is getting longer, and the audience is getting more bored. It’s too much.”
Longtime Top Fuel racer Cory McClenathan, who’s retiring from the NHRA’s headliner class after this weekend, shared some thoughts about this sport’s sometimes-wearying schedule, which promises to be even more tiring in 2020.
He acknowledged that Billy Torrence’s uniquely successful season has changed the way some drivers might be thinking about their level of participation: “Well, yeah, he came out thinking, ‘OK. I’m going to do eight races’ or whatever, and obviously now he’s done a lot more, but he jumped in the Top 10. So we know that with a good car and a good team, you don’t have to run all 24 events.
“The 24-event thing, it just is so taxing on everybody: money-wise, people-wise, driver-wise. No life at home. You’re on the road all the time. I mean, I experienced it in every way. Did it with the motorhome, marriage, marriage failed because of not being home. I like to be there and take care of my animals and work on the house and stuff, and after a while you find yourself [saying], ‘OK. I have an apartment, and I’ve got the motorhome, because I’m not using anything. So even when I was living in Havasu, that worked out great when they flew out of Havasu, but when they stopped doing that, I had to go to Vegas to go out or Phoenix. So it was like, ‘OK, sell the house, sell the boat, sell your stuff off.’ It just never seems to be a solid foundation, and that’s what I’m all about. I like the family thing,” McClenathan said.
“When I started, it [the number of races on the schedule] was 18. And then it built, it built, it built and I think we’re overbuilt,” he said. “It’s like if we scale back a little bit, not only could the smaller teams afford to do it, I think you’d see more fans at more races and the stands would be packed. Everybody’s still going to make money and everybody’s still going to get their piece of the pie and the sponsor will still be happy – because collectively you’ve gone out and done better at 18 races, where you’re pushing the envelope to do 24.”
Scheduling isn’t an easy task in normal conditions. A host of factors are at play. And potentially removing a venue or a race from the series could stir animosity. So the sanctioning body can’t cavalierly mess with the schedule. The process is complicated and rather long. Nevertheless, McClenathan had some ideas.
“Look at some of the races that we do twice a year. I mean, now we’ve got the four-wide thing. It’s kind of a given that we’re going to do the four-wide [at Las Vegas], the four wide in Charlotte, and then come back and do just two [lanes],” he said.
“At the same time, there’s some of those venues that they just don’t bring in the crowds anymore,” he said. “Let’s just be a businessman about it and really look at it. Is it really healthy for everybody? I would be completely cool with it if they backed up to 18, 20 races and knocked out a few. I think that would be more interesting for the fans to see than the way we’re doing it right now.
“I’ve always been, ‘Hey you’ve got to be in that Top 10,’ but I think we need to add something to that where ‘OK, it’s the Top 10 and then after the next two races, that one’s eliminated, you’re out of the deal,’ You can still race, but you’re not going to be in the running for the championship. I think that would be more fun for the fans to watch and it would make these guys work harder at each and every race,” McClenathan said.
Steve Torrence has expressed more than once that “winning” the “regular season” essentially is meaningless, given the points restructuring that occurs at the start of the Countdown to the Championship. Dominating the first 18 races comes with no reward, monetary or otherwise (save a paltry 10-point advantage over the No. 2 seed). If the Countdown is going to continue, maybe the No. 1 seeds ought to receive some sort of incentive or reward.
“Throw them a bone. Do something. That’s how I look at it,” McClenathan said.
“I don’t think they’re looking at Countdown changes,” he said about NHRA officials. “I think they’re looking at motor changes to try to slow the cars down a little bit, make it more even. I’ve heard the whole gamut from a restrictor plate to a smaller fuel pump to a smaller-cubic-inch motor. I just think they need to make a decision and stick with it, one or the other.
“I’m not the guy to ask about that, but that’s my opinion as a driver. And being away from it a little bit and kind of watching what’s going on, that’s what I would do. Let’s make a change and make it a little bit easier for the smaller guy to do it without having to spend a ton of money to get it done,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing. Now the big teams, they can make those changes easy, but not these guys.”
“Slowing the cars down” is a concept that has floated in and out of favor since 2009. However, the reality seems to be that drivers and tuners want to go faster and faster but just want to be safer and safer.
“I think they want to do both. They still want them to run over 320 [mph], but we have no business going 340,” McClenathan said. “These tires were never made to go that fast, and Goodyear’s come right out and said that. So, you know, I’ve heard that for years, not just for a couple years, but a lot of years. They were never built to go 340 plus miles an hour.”
Funny Car racer Robert Hight has topped 339 twice, setting the national speed record in the 2017 Sonoma, Calif., race at 339.87 mph and clocking 339.02 mph later that year at Reading, Pa. at 2017. This year, Funny Car’s Ron Capps regenerated the conversation by pushing that envelope at Reading with his 339.02 mph.
“It was awesome to see, but then again… Believe me, I’ve been there, run 336 in the quarter-mile, 337, and the cars do weird things down there when you’re running that fast. I mean, it’s really cool and all, everything, but it’s time to figure out something that’s good for the sport. Everybody, let’s keep them safe. Keep the drivers in one piece, keep the cars in one piece and make everybody happy,” McClenathan said. “I think we can still draw a big crowd. Going back to quarter-mile? Why even talk about it? It’s gone and it’s not going to be there. There’s some tracks you’ll never be able to go out and do that, not the way they’re running right now.
“I still get the hardcore racer that says, ‘I only liked it when it was quarter-mile.’ Well, I did too. I grew up doing that, but I also lost some friends because we were running a quarter-mile and I don’t want to lose anybody else,” he said. “So let’s run 1,000 foot and enjoy it, because it’s good side by side racing. That’s how I look at it.”
P.U.! = PARTNERING UP – Juan Carlos Baselli tackles some pretty difficult challenges. Right now, his enemy is nasty odors from skunks, mildew, cigarette smoke, and mold. What in the world does that have to do with drag racing?
Baselli, through his Biocide Systems company’s Auto Shocker brand, has forged a marketing partnership with Top Fuel newcomer Justin Ashley. Auto Shocker will debut on Ashley's Strutmasters.com / Davis Motorsports Dragster this weekend at the Auto Club Finals.
Ashley’s deliverables extend beyond motorsports, for the soon-to-be-25-year-old from Long Island operates a house-flipping operation away from the racetrack. He buys distressed real-estate properties that, frankly, come with some disgusting elements he needs to address. So Auto Shocker – a revolutionary new eco-friendly CLO2 deodorizing product that’s designed to eliminate tough smells in cars, RVs, boats, and homes. So theirs is a perfect business match.
"We are glad to be a part of the team and to have Justin Ashley represent Auto Shocker," Baselli said. "Justin is an up-and-coming driver, and Auto Shocker is an up-and-coming product. We plan to grow together and take the sponsorship to the next level. Justin’s star is on the rise, not only with racing, but also with his real-estate show ‘Fix Flip Fuel.’ And our Bio-Shocker line of products fit right in with both aspects. The stars have aligned. Timing and synergy could not be better."
Spencer Blua, the company's chief financial officer, said, “We see a lot of potential for Justin to be a top contender in a short time. We are so grateful for the opportunity to get in at this early stage in his career and grow our brands together.”
Baselli, chief executive officer of Biocide, is a 30-year entrepreneur, as well as inventor and developer of the patent-pending ClO2-DMG Technology whose key ingredient is chlorine dioxide. It’s capable of permanently eliminating all foul smells from any enclosed space permanently. Baselli has has extensive experience in taking products from concept to market, and his range of experience covers the business spectrum from conceptualization, identifying and protecting intellectual properties, sourcing, manufacturing, packaging, branding to proof of concept, distribution, and licensing.
Ashley said his involvement in drag racinh has taught him “the importance of being both efficient and successful in your field, Those are exactly the same qualities I see in Auto Shocker. It's very easy to help market a product when you believe in it. I believe wholeheartedly in Auto Shocker and its unique ability to eliminate unwanted odors from most any vehicle."
NO MATH WHIZZES NECESSARY – No. 5-seeded Top Fuel racer Leah Pritchett was the top qualifier at this event last year (but lost in Round 1 to rookie of the year Bill Litton) and was the No. 1 starter at the most recent event, at Las Vegas. And she’s hoping to capture that mojo again this weekend. It’s her one and only chance to trigger an ambush of points leader and reigning champion Steve Torrence.
“Doesn’t take a math whiz to figure out that this race is on deck to be the most meaningful of the season. The potential for greatness is there for the taking, and we are ready to grab it,” Pritchett said. “All we can do is focus on being as quick and consistent as possible. Capturing a low-qualifying time to better position ourselves for race day is key more than ever. We are due for our best Countdown showing, which means better than the semis. All we can do is race smart, win the race, and let the competition cards fall where they may.”
Pritchett, the Brainerd winner in August and runner-up at Phoenix in February, is a native of nearby Redlands, Calif., who has 140 Top Fuel races and eight overall victories on her resume.
BACK IN THEIR OWN CARS – Shawn Reed is back in his own car. At the most recent race, two weeks ago at Las Vegas, he sported his familiar Hughes Oilfield Transportation livery, but it adorned Jordan Vandergriff’s dragster. Vandergriff is entered at this 2019 finale, so Reed is driving his familiar car.
“I’ve got a wrap for his car, and I’ve got a wrap for my car. So when we only run one car, I have Jordan’s crew, because they’re the full-time guys. They prefer to work on the same car, so it doesn’t matter to me. It’s their blower, their motors. I’ve got my own motors, blower, clutch program over there. Over here, they’ve got their own. They want to use their own. I don’t mind switching,” Reed said.
“I drove Jordan’s car in Seattle, as well,” the Bob Vandergriff Racing driver said during the Las Vegas race. I mean, we went to a semi-final in Seattle with it. I went to the semi-finals in my car in Atlanta. So these cars all run good. They’re all the same.”
Reed, of Lake Tapps, Wash., said the rookie’s dragster “is a little bit bigger. It was built for Bob. I have to take his insert out and put my insert in, and I fit in just fine. It’s not a big deal. The cars are set up the same – they just go. Jordan just has to put his insert in, and he goes right back at it. No changes. An insert is just a poured-in seat. So he puts a seat on a seat and he fits snug in it. His a-- is so small that I can’t get my a-- in his little bun area. It forms to your body, so it goes around you and up your back.”
GREAT SEASON, ANYWAY – Top Fuel owner-driver Scott Palmer didn’t qualify for the Countdown this year. Just the same, he remarked on social media that “it’s been a great season. We learned a lot, even if the results didn’t show it as much as we would like. Myself, Tommy Thompson, and the entire Magic Dry [Dragster] team want to thank everyone who supports us.”
HALE AND HELLO AGAIN! – John Hale is back in the Funny Car mix for the first time since this race in 2016, when he drove for Jim Dunn Racing. And the affable Texan from the Dallas suburb of Addison will be promoting his popular brand of barbecue sauce on the side of Del Worsham’s Toyota.
“I’m stoked to be back in Del Worsham’s Funny Car for the Auto Club Finals,” Hale said of the Best of Texas BBQ Sauce Camry. “This car has the possibility of running 3.80s. The plan is to knock the rust off on Friday, strap in for another run on Saturday, then get it into the show and have some fun on Sunday. I’m excited about my chances with this car.
“This race will always be special to me because the heart of drag racing lives in Southern California. The Auto Club Raceway at Pomona has been the host of hundreds of races since the first NHRA event was held there on an April weekend in 1953. The list of famous drag racers who have run cars down this track always leave me feeling the magic that goes with racing here,” Hale said.
The Worsham family, who put Ray Martin in the car for the U.S. Nationals and saw him upset Ron Capps in the opening round there at Indianapolis, has made recent changes to the car. Those include adding the newest cylinder head.
Hale is displaying his Best of Texas Barbecue Sauce on the side of the Funny Car, celebrating his banner year for the company. It’s expanding its market reach in multiple chain stores such as Tom Thumb, Albertsons, and Safeway. “We just came off of our best sales month ever in September. What better way to spread the word about our great product than through NHRA drag racing. Of course, racing and barbecue sauce and Texas just go together.”
OUT OF CHASE BUT LOVES POMONA STILL – Tommy Johnson Jr. is eighth in the Funny Car standings and knows he can’t make up the 188 points leader Robert Hight has on him while everyone else ahead of him fails to qualify. But he won’t be going through the motions this weekend. The Make-A-Wish Dodge Charger driver said he couldn’t wait to get here because “we’ve had such success there. We’ve been to the final round the past four years and won it two of those times (2016, 2017). It’s a good race for our team, and the way our car ran in Vegas, I think that we have a really good shot at finishing the season off well, and we’ll try and get as high as we can in the points.” Johnson also was a runner-up at this race in 2002.
BECKMAN CERTAIN HE HAS GOOD SHOT AT SECOND TITLE - Jack Beckman, the No. 2-ranked Funny Car racer, has total confidence that he and his Dean Antonelli-/John Medlen-tuned Infinite Hero Dodge Charger Hellcat can make up the 46 points that separate him and leader Robert Hight. And he has his strategy figured out as much as any racer can at this stage of the weekend.
“We’ve been No. 1 qualifier three times in the last six events. I think right now we're clearly a frontrunner to contend for the championship, not just in our points position, but in our performance lately," Beckman said. "If we get another opportunity like we had in Vegas where we are paired up with Hight early, we get a chance to control our own destiny.
“I’m not looking at Matt [Hagan] or John Force behind us, because we want to finish first. We’re not trying to defend the second-place position,” he said. “We have to do our best to optimize points, starting with Q1. I think we’ve got a car that’s clearly capable of doing that. . “So my job is to do my job. So, our goal right now is to maximize qualifying points, execute perfectly on race day, and hope that the ladder falls in such a way that we pair up with Robert before the final round.”
Actually, Beckman has faced Hight in eliminations three times in the Countdown and has defeated him twice but lost to him in the Charlotte final round. At the Reading, Pa., kickoff, Beckman advanced past Hight en route to the victory. At Las Vegas, he beat Hight, in Round 2 just as at Reading.
This weekend, he has calculated his chances vis-à-vis Hight: “If we win the race and Robert is not in the final next to us, we win the championship. So our goal right now is to maximize qualifying points, execute perfectly on race day, and hope that the ladder falls in such a way that we pair up with Robert before the final round."
If Beckman, from nearby Norco, wins this event, it will be his first here. He was 2006 runner-up and has led the Funny Car field three times (2006, 2016, 2017).
CAN HAGAN TAKE LATE SURGE TO TITLE? – Matt Hagan was as far out of the Funny Car lead as eighth place by the middle of the Western Swing in July. He didn’t start to move into serious championship contention until the second half of the Countdown. The driver of the MOPAR Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Widebody, a two-time series champion already, claimed back-to-back victories at Dallas and Las Vegas and is ranked third, just 56 points off Robert Hight’s pace.
“Winning Dallas was definitely the shot in the arm we needed. You’re always hoping for the best, and you have that ‘never give up’ mentality. We struggled at the beginning, but it’s one of those things where the points are so close once they’re reset that it really only takes a race or two to get back in there,” Hagan said. “If we would’ve done better from the get-go, we might be leading in the points, but ‘woulda, shoulda, coulda . . . ’ We’re happy to be in this position where we have a shot right now. The only thing we can do is control our own destiny – do the best job we can and let the points fall where they may.”
He said, “I'm in a very different position than I was in 2011 and 2014, but no matter the season or situation, there will always be some sort of adversity you need to overcome in order to win it. Obviously, when you go into Pomona in first, that's a great feeling, but unless you have a huge points lead, you really can't breathe easy until you're standing on the stage holding the big trophy, especially now with it being points-and-a-half.”
Being able to do that again this Monday would be extra-special for Hagan, for that’s his 37th birthday.
“I'm just happy we're in the position where we're still in the running and have a legitimate shot at coming out on top,” the three-time event winner (2011, 2013, 2014) said.
NOT EXACTLY ‘TODDLING’ ALONG – JR Todd realistically is expecting to bid good-bye to his season as Funny Car champion once qualifying gets rolling. He’s mathematically alive in his quest to repeat, but as the No. 7-seeded driver, he knows his window of opportunity is shutting quickly.
If he got to walk the runway, say farewell, and capsulize what his reign meant to him, like outgoing Miss Americas traditionally have done, Todd has this message: “We ran strong all season and just got picked off a couple of times early in the Countdown. You look at most of the guys we lost to in the Countdown they went rounds after they beat us. I just feel like we were right there and some things didn’t go our way. The positives are we never gave up and we battled all year. You want to make the playoffs and then have a strong showing if you can’t get the championship. That is what this DHL team did.”
Todd said, “There is a reason no one has repeated as Funny Car champion since the early 2000s. There are ton of championship-caliber Funny Cars racing at every event. You look at how competitive this Countdown was this season. I don’t think one driver went to three finals in the first five races. In the first four races, there were four different winners. We were in the mix all season and just came up a little short. Trust me – no one is hanging their heads over in the DHL pit.”
He would like to remind everyone he and is Kalitta Motorsports operation deserves better than a seventh-place label. “I would love to grab another Wally to close out the season,” he said. “I remember last year’s race like it was yesterday, and getting that last win light of the season is pretty special. We are going to try and be the last Funny Car standing on Sunday, for sure.
“Last year was amazing. We clinched the championship early on race day, and then we just kept grinding with more round wins. We knew we wanted to win the race and the championship. This year we are going after a second Auto Club Finals win and we are looking to move up as high as possible in the standings. These Yella Fellas never quit busting their tails this season, and there is no reason to not give it our all this weekend,” Todd said.
YEAR ALREADY A SUCCESS FOR TASCA – On the strength of victories at Bristol, Tenn., and Norwalk, Ohio, as well as runner-up finishes at Denver and Dallas and four semifinal runs, Bob Tasca III is fifth in the Funny Car standings with a 104-point disadvantage to make up if he is to earn his first championship.
No matter what happens, though, the Rhode Island auto dealer and Ford loyalist said, “When we look back, this is going to be a breakout year for us.”
In the Countdown, Tasca has reset his career-bests on the 1,000-foot course with a 3.855-second elapsed time (at St. Louis) and 335.32-mph speed (at Reading, Pa).
“The Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Mustang is running on rails,” Tasca said. “I have all the confidence in the world in [crew chiefs Mike Neff and Jon Schaffer]. Ford Performance did such a great job on this new Ford Mustang Funny Car body, and we’re consistently going rounds on race day. I’m already looking forward to next year. I’ve never been so excited to be part of it.”
Off the track, through the NHRA Youth and Education Services (YES) program, Tasca has helped the Ford Customer Service Division (FCSD) spread the word that Ford and Lincoln dealerships have jobs to fill. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the automotive service technician industry will face a shortage of 45,000 technicians per year now through 2026. To shrink that void, Tasca so far this year has spoken to more than 31,000 students who have registered to attend YES events.
“The NHRA YES partnership is doing exactly what we hoped it would do,” Jasmine Pendleton, marketing manager for FCSD, said. “It’s amazing to see all of the school buses roll in and know that every person on those buses could have a future with us. Bob is the perfect spokesperson for these initiatives. You can see he really connects with the students and believes in the message we’re bringing.”
STILL HAS HOPE – A testing session the day after the conclusion of the Las Vegas race two weeks ago has given Funny Car longshot contender Ron Capps some optimism.
“Unfortunately, we sort of struggled in Dallas and Vegas,” the No. 6-ranked Dodge Charger driver said, “but we tested on Monday in Vegas and feel like we’ve got our NAPA car back. Mathematically, we’re not out of the championship and you never know what can happen in Pomona. We’ve seen stranger things. So we’re just going to try to win every single point we can. There are more points for each round of qualifying, more points for qualifying position, and more points for each round on race day. Our goal is to win the race and move me as far left on the stage for the banquet Monday night as possible.”
Capps hasn’t won this event but was runner-up in 2008. However, he has led the field four times (1999, 2012, 2015, 2018).