2019 NHRA ARIZONA NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
TORRENCE LEADS TOP FUEL STANDINGS – BILLY TORRENCE, THAT IS - Torrence leads the Top Fuel standings once again.
But it’s not the same Torrence NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series fans might expect.
It’s part-time racer Billy Torrence rather than his reigning class-champion son Steve, who took over the standings last year after winning this race at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park at Chandler, Ariz., and utterly dominated the field – and led for a stretch of 10 in 13 events.
Billy Torrence shared the winners circle with Funny Car’s Matt Hagan, who scored a runaway victory over JR Todd, and Pro Stock’s Jeg Coughlin, who earned his 62nd overall victory and fourth here.
Now Steve gets to watch his 60-year-old dad have his turn in the spotlight in a matching Capco Contractors Dragster – leading the points for the first time in his 34-race career.
Torrence the Elder defeated Leah Pritchett in the final round of Sunday’s Magic Dry Organic Absorbant Arizona Nationals to remain perfect in final rounds. It’s also only his second victory in as many final appearances. Both came when he was the event’s No. 1 qualifier.
He earned his first triumph since last Aug. 19 at Brainerd, Minn., using a 3.965-second elapsed time at 326.40 mph to leave Pritchett’s traction-plagued Mopar Pennzoil Dragster far behind on the 1,000-foot course.
She finished the pass in a disappointing 9.568 seconds at 75.68 mph in her bid for a third Phoenix victory in four years and first overall victory since last July at Denver.
Torrence advanced past three racers seeking their first victories: Terry Totten in the Mr. Magoo Dragster; Mike Salinas, who according to conventional wisdom is on the verge of winning in his Scrappers Dragster; and Jordan Vandergriff, the second impressive rookie sensation to debut in consecutive races.
“It’s wonderful. It’s just a blessing to be out here. I would like to have raced Steve in the final. That didn’t work out. But it just worked out great,” Torrence said. “It was a tough weekend for the weather, for the NHRA. But it came out great. We’re proud to be out here, representing NHRA.
“It’s so humbling to be able to come out here and race with my family,” he said. “It’s top of the world, really, top of the world. And I can’t say enough about the guys that put this car together. We are really blessed as a family to be able to do this and have some success at it and I give God all the glory.”
His son, who experienced a rare first-round loss Sunday, did provide some encouragement and counsel.
“He just told me to keep on doing what I was doing. I asked him if there was anything I needed to do different, and he said, ‘Looks like you’re doing a good job. Just keep on doing that and just be comfortable.”
Pritchett reached her 14th final round past Cameron Ferre, Terry McMillen and Antron Brown.
Torrence said Saturday night he didn’t plan to enter the March 14-17 Amalie Oil Gatornationals at Gainesville, Fla., the third of 24 events on the tour. His plan was to return at Las Vegas for four-wide action, then compete at Houston, not far from his Kilgore, Texas, home.
“They’ve got me penciled in to run as many as 14 [events],” he said. “I’ll race all of them that it’s not detrimental to win.”
If he should find himself in a Countdown-eligible situation, Torrence said, “I’d have to talk to The Powers That Be about that right there. I’m here on invitation only, so they’ll let me know.
“All those guys have to work double-hard to get me out [to the racetrack]. Several of the guys who work on my team are part-time. So it puts an additional burden on Steve’s bunch, too, It’s a big deal, and I’m just grateful that they let me come out, because I’m not the one with the Top Fuel career. I’m still pipeline.
“I have a super-team, really two super-teams. Steve’s teams works on my car and prepares it, and my part-time guys maintain it. I get the best of both worlds. So when I come out , I have a car that’s capable of winning anytime,” he said.
Steve Torrence’s Richard Hogan-led crew with dedicated brothers Bobby and Dom Lagana in the brain trust work with crew chiefs Walt Przybyl and Jason McCulloch. Susan Wade
HAGAN CAPTURES FUNNY CAR WIN AT PHOENIX - On race day, everything came together for Matt Hagan.
The driver of the Don Schumacher nitro Funny Car sponsored by Sandvik Coromant knocked out the competition en route to winning the Magic Dry Organic Absorbent NHRA Arizona Nationals Sunday.
Hagan clocked a 3.890-second time in the finals to upend reigning world champion J.R. Todd, who smoked the tires off the starting line in his Kalitta Motorsports DHL-sponsored Toyota Camry at Wild Horse Motorsports Park in Avon near Phoenix.
“Hat’s off to (crew chief) Dickie Venables,” Hagan said. “The guy won the race, that’s for sure. He had a race car underneath me that was going down the race track every lap and it gave me a lot of confidence. The lights out here were really long. You almost had to kind of like think go and you go in your mind and I still had to wait. My lights were a little bit off, I was in the .080s all weekend and I got pumped up and had a .040 in the final. At the end of the day, it was one of those things were Dickie put a great race car underneath me and he gave me a car where it didn’t matter if my lights were great or not. He won this race and my entire team that came back with me this year has been great.”
Hagan’s victory was the 30th of his career and 150th Funny Car win for DSR. Hagan upended Phil Burkhart Jr., Shawn Langdon, and Bob Tasca III before ousting Todd in the final round.
“Those are some huge milestones,” said Todd about his 30th win and No. 150 in Funny Car for DSR. “To be driving for Don Schumacher for 11 years and be able to win 30 races and have a chunk of those 150 Funny Car wins is pretty cool. It just goes to show you that I’ve been put around really good people and really driven crew chiefs and individuals who work hard. Dickie is one of the best out here and I’m just really glad to have him in our corner and we’re looking forward to this season. J.R. is a great driver, he’s a world champ, and I have nothing but respect for him, but it is a new year and a new season, and we have to go out here and make our own way again.”
Hagan claimed bragging rights for becoming the first Mopar-powered driver to park the new Dodge Hellcat body in the winner’s circle for the first time. This is the third time Hagan has won in Phoenix, as he also was victorious in 2015 and 2017.
“It’s huge to get the first win with the Hellcat body,” Hagan said. “Mopar has spent so much money with R&D designing a new look and new body that has better performance and it is just nice to put it in the winner’s circle and show them that their hard work has paid off. It’s early in the season and I’m excited that we got some pressure off and we have a Wally back in the trophy case and we have a lot more racing to do. I think we are going to test (Monday) and make some more runs and try some different things, but I really felt like Dickie Venables figured some stuff out in the clutch side of things this weekend.”
Hagan, who won the 2011 and 2014 nitro Funny Car NHRA world titles, moved up to second place in the points. Tracy Renck
COUGHLIN CLAIMS PRO STOCK CROWN AT ARIZONA NATIONALS - The 2018 Pro Stock NHRA Mello Yello Series season was one of revival for Jeg Coughlin Jr.
Coughlin, a five-time Pro Stock world champion, his last coming in 2013, won three races last season and was runner-up twice in his Jegs.com/Elite Performance Chevy Camaro. He finished second in the world standings behind Tanner Gray, who has left the NHRA ranks to pursue a NASCAR career.
That momentum from 2018 carried over almost immediately in 2019.
Coughlin won the Magic Dry Organic Absorbent NHRA Arizona Nationals Sunday in his 1000th round of Pro Stock racing.
In the finals at Wild Horse Motorsports Park, Coughlin defeated Matt Hartford, who had a red-light start.
This was Coughlin Jr.’s 62nd career Pro Stock victory. Coughlin’s victory parade consisted of wins over Greg Anderson, Alex Laughlin – on a red-light start – Erica Enders and then Hartford.
“This is awesome,” Coughlin said. “We had abbreviated qualifying with Friday being rained out and that put everybody behind a couple of runs and it is early in the season and we don’t have a whole lot of runs under our belt. We came out Saturday and made two good runs, ran 54 both runs, and ended up seventh. In Pro Stock, the top 15 guys are just separated by a hundredths and half and two hundredths. (Sunday) it was on and I felt really good behind the wheel.”
It was the 100th time Coughlin and Anderson met up. Coughlin clocked a 6.568-second time and Anderson slowed during his run.
“You can’t take him (Anderson) anywhere,” Coughlin said. “He ran into trouble early and we were able to motor down through there for the win. Then, I ran three of my teammates. Alex didn’t have a clutch pedal basically (in the second round). I met two-time champ Erica Enders in the semis. I know what they are capable of and I know what she is capable of. We had a good drag and obviously for me it turned out well. I came back in final and met Matt Hartford who is from here (Phoenix). I knew he was wanting the win really bad for his local crowd and family, but we came out on top today.”
Coughlin moved up to second in the points standings.
“This was a huge, huge win, and I’m looking really forward to the rest of the season,” Coughlin said. “We’re are looking to debut a new car in Gainesville, so we will send this one off with a win. It has been a really good car for almost a year. We are certainly not disappointed with the No. 2 finish last year because it was up against the best in the world. We would love to forward that to a No. 1 by the end of the 2019 Mello Yello season, but there’s a lot of racing left. We will chalk this win up today as a great win without question and one to get our attention.” Tracy Renck
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK – NHRA MAGIC DRY ARIZONA NATIONALS
ADJUSTING TO COLD TRICKY FOR EVERYONE; ALEXANDER RE-LAUNCHES FUNNY CAR CAREER, WHILE VANDERGRIFF STARTS IN TOP FUEL; TOP FUEL’S BOTTOM HALF SURPRISING; BILLY TORRENCE GETS DOUBLE DOSE OF GOOD NEWS
RAIN DISAPPEARS, STRONG NUMBERS SHINE – In an unfortunate convergence of cold and wet conditions, a racing surface without proper rubber, and inevitably ugly performances, Friday’s qualifying for the Magic Dry Arizona Nationals took its toll on almost every team in the two nitro-powered classes. For the most part, everyone recovered Saturday with sunshine and a 100-degree track to begin the day at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park.
Leading the fields into Sunday’s eliminations will be Billy Torrence (Top Fuel), Robert Hight (Funny Car), and Bo Butner (Pro Stock).
Clay Millican owns the national elapsed-time record at 3.628 seconds (set a year ago this month at Pomona, Calif.). But he said he would not be surprised if track and maybe even national records fall this weekend.
“Absolutely not. Definitely, they can. Conditions are there if the track is there,” he said.
McMILLEN RISES TO TOP – Terry McMillen didn’t have a chance to run Friday, because he was in line to fire up his Amalie Oil Dragster when officials halted qualifying minutes ahead of another rainstorm. He said he understood that the track was “like an ice arena” and “it’s not worth somebody getting hurt.” For his patience, he was rewarded Saturday. McMillen seized the tentative No. 1 qualifying spot with a 330-mph, 3.695-second blast that got within .046 of a second of Tony Schumacher’s year-old track record of 3.649. McMillen will start No. 2 – his career-best. The bad news is he’ll face a tough opponent in Richie Crampton, the surprising No. 15 starter.
Crew chief Rob Wendland said he has had some high-profile help at the Brownsburg, Ind.-headquartered shop: three-time Top Fuel champion Larry Dixon and longtime fabricator Tony Derhammer, who has worked with Murf McKinney, Lee Beard, and Antron Brown.
Wendland said Dixon “has been at the shop working with me, and we’ve been having all these major discussions about the safety requirements on the car. He’s helped me inside the driver’s cockpit do some things. Let me tell you what, he is way more of a race car driver than I ever thought. Larry’s done cylinder heads. Larry’s done every aspect on the car. So I learned from Larry. Isn’t that so awesome?”
Moreover, he said, “I needed help. I’m pulled in every direction at the shop, especially with a bunch of new people. I probably wouldn’t have had the car finished if Larry hadn’t come over and helped me. He helped me for a month. We built this car, and with Cody Yeager, the three of us basically – and Tony Derhammer who used to be with Murf McKinney. They call him Hammer. He is a fabricating fool.”
BOTTOM HALF SHOCKING – The bottom half of the Top Fuel field is an eyebrow-raiser that includes such notable names as Mike Salinas (ninth), Clay Millican (11th), Brittany Force (13th), and current class champion Steve Torrence (14th).
The Capco Contractors Dragster driver, who steamrolled the field last year, had a best elapsed time of an uncharacteristic y 5.682 seconds in two attempts Saturday. He sat out Friday’s only session because of weather and track conditions. This No. 14 start is his worst since Nov. 9, 2013, when he started 15th in the Auto Club Finals at Pomona, Calif.
“We were just too aggressive,” Torrence said of two traction-troubled runs. “But my old man got us some data that should help us. The good thing is that we still are on opposite sides of the ladder. The bad thing is we’ve got to get around Antron [Brown] in the first round, and that’s never easy to do even when you have lane choice. On the other hand, you never want to count these bad-to-the-bone Capco boys out.”
In the Funny Car class, Jeff Diehl anchored the field, leaving Gary Densham the odd man out on the 17-driver entry list. The bottom half of the ladder in this category also had some surprising names: champions Ron Capps, Cruz Pedregon, and Jack Beckman.
ALEXANDER EAGER TO RE-LAUNCH FUNNY CAR CAREER – Blake Alexander, the toast of the Top Fuel team last year for his two victories and one semifinal finish in the first six of only 11 starts, is driving a Funny Car this season. After skipping the preseason test session here and the schedule-opening Winternationals, then working with his crew for 10 hours in the chilly rain here Thursday, Alexander was more than ready to make his first laps in the Funny Car.
The rain delay and the time track-prep officials took to ensure the sand trap was safe didn’t bother Alexander. He said the crew needed a little more time before heading to the starting line.
But he had to wait even further to make his on-track return to Funny Car. An apparent mechanical problem forced the Daniel Wilkerson-led crew to push the car from the starting line in the fuel cars’ only Friday session. The NHRA canceled the day’s action around 4:30 p.m. Mountain Time because of incoming rainstorms, without the Pro Stock class making a showing.
Alexander did not receive a time, and Gary Densham and Terry Haddock didn’t make an attempt Friday. So the three of them had two more chances Saturday to fight over the two remaining positions in the order. The field has 17 cars, one more than a full grid. In Saturday’s opening session, Alexander got into the line-up with a 4.035-second elapsed time at 270.54-mph run, while Densham and Haddock didn’t finish their passes under power.
Finally, Alexander got to put numbers on the scoreboard, particularly satisfying after all he did to lay a strong foundation when leaving Bob Vandergriff Racing.
“I sold my [masonry] business in Charlotte, and I had some of the financial means together to get this going, and then I had an individual that gave me the rest of the money over the off-season,” Alexander said. “I called Bob as soon as I secured all of it and told him. I owned this team within a few weeks, and we’ve been working our butts of ever since, trying to get ready for this point and getting ready to go make a run right now. So, we’ll see how it goes.
“I own a business that does marketing for small companies, but it’s not like anything as big as what I was doing before,” he said. “We’re just working to make all this happen. [Primary sponsor] Pronto believes in me, and we’ve got a new sponsor, C2C, who’s on board this weekend. They’re here hanging out with us, so we’re going to try and put on a good show for everyone.”
Alexander said his switch from a dragster back to a Funny Car and the move from Bob Vandergriff Racing to his own operation “has everything to do with just bettering my family and creating an opportunity for myself and my sponsors to take things into our own hands.
“We’re excited about this year. Not much is going to really change other than the car’s shorter. We’re going to try to run good. There’s nowhere to go but up after working for 10 hours in the rain yesterday – and the cold. That wasn’t the best first day,” Alexander said.
Curiously, Alexander’s display of skill proved that it’s possible to run a part-time schedule and be competitive among the class’ elite. Had he not skipped the Seattle and Brainerd races and kept his momentum going, he might have qualified for the Countdown. Even before that, he had skipped the Pomona Winternationals, the Gatornationals, the Las Vegas and Charlotte four-wide races, Houston, Topeka, Richmond, Bristol, and Epping. Had he entered a few of those, say, one-third of those, he surely would have made the playoffs and put himself in contention for the championship.
But Alexander said he has no regrets about the team’s decision.
“If I had made the Countdown, Steve Torrence still would have won the championship. So it really doesn’t make a difference if I wasted money and went to a couple races that we didn’t have money for,” he said.
VANDERGRIFF MAKES TOP FUEL DEBUT – Blake Alexander and Jordan Vandergriff were supposed to be teammates, the dynamic young duo in Top Fuel. But Alexander left the class and returned to the Funny Car category. Vandergriff performed admirably without advice from Alexander.
After passing up Friday’s chance to make his NHRA debut, Vandergriff took Top Fuel’s provisional No. 2 slot early Saturday at 3.726, 321.88 in uncle Bob Vandergriff’s D-A Lubricants Dragster. He settled into fourth place with those numbers, sandwiched between Antron Brown and Doug Kalitta.
“He’s really looking good so far. We have big expectations for him,” crew chief Ron Douglas said.
Billy Torrence and “the other quick rookie,” Austin Prock, were third and fourth at the end of Q2, with E.Ts. separated by four-thousandths of a second (3.734, 3.738). No one else cracked the 3.8-second mark in front of a strong crowd.
GOOD NEWS – TWICE – Billy Torrence had two wonderful pieces of news Saturday. First, he barged to the No. 1 qualifying position with a late-afternoon run of 3.667 seconds at 328.46 mph. It was his second top starting spot and first since his victorious trip to Brainerd, Minn., last August.
Then he received a break Saturday in the case of the missing rear-wing element.
“There was a fan who showed up at the gate, at the ropes, this afternoon,” Torrence said. And the gentleman was carrying the missing piece of the wing that had blown off the car during qualifying at Pomona.
“He wanted that thing for a souvenir, had picked it up off the ground or something. So we all [the crew] turned around and started walking toward him,” Torrence said.
The crew was excited to retrieve the missing piece, but the fan was a bit leery when he saw all the team members heading his way.
“He actually had picked the win up and taken it home and brought one piece of it back today. He’s going to bring the other piece back tomorrow,” Torrence said. “So we did find it and will help get it back to Aerodine. Hopefully they can figure out what’s going on there. It was the exact piece that we needed.”
CREW CHIEFS ADJUST TO COLD – Everyone who attended the Lucas Oil Winternationals and/or this weekend’s Magic Dry Arizona Nationals understands the effects of the cold and rain on the crowds. But Rob Wendland and John Collins – crew chiefs for Top Fuel’s Terry McMillen and Funny Car’s Tommy Johnson Jr., respectively – offered some insight about how teams have to react to these more extreme conditions.
“There’s so much stuff that’s done in the pit first – not tune up wise, but just making sure the car’s prepared for cold weather. That is all the internals and all the rear end. Everything’s really cold,” Wendland said.
Parts and pieces receive special treatment.
“We try big heaters and stuff like that. We try warming it up. I have what they call a Salamander outside,” he said while in his hauler office, going over data Friday. He said he was trying to heat the car’s “guts” to somewhere in the neighborhood of 70-75 degrees. “That’s kind of my minimum to start up [a dragster], because what happens is the clearances all change on everything. The fuel pump gets tighter, so it gets bigger. The clearances between the crankshaft and the engine block, it tightens up,” he said.
“I think about getting 70-90-weight fluid in the rear end, and if it’s 40 degrees comparatively to 80 degrees, it’s heavier. It really is, and so it’s harder to turn.”
For Wendland, “it’s just common sense,” he said. “You know, batteries [in a passenger car] when they get colder, they lose cranking amps. But everything, the oil, everything else is so thick from being that cold, it’s harder to spin. So then you get in it, you let it warm up, and everything, and you go and take a little drive and the minute you back up, you feel like maybe the brakes are on a little bit. So all the rear end fluid and everything else is so cold that it’s having to work against that. You notice also that the ride is different. It’s like it’s bumpier. The shocks, everything acts different.”
Then, when the team takes the car to the staging lanes, it has to make sure not to lose the progress made back in the pit.
“It’s like you warm it up here in the pit, and then we try to cover it up: blankets and all that kind of stuff to retain the heat,” Wendland said. “Another thing it does is it actually changes the mixture of nitro and alcohol. It changes quite a bit. It really falls off. Sometimes that’s a little hard to read. I honestly believe that a 45-degree fuel temperature is going to make more power than 90-degree fuel temperature. You know, you’ve changed the intake temperature of the engine. And so it actually probably makes a little more power. But also, just density-wise, it measures differently. It gets kind of inaccurate with the gauges that we have a little bit. It’s not as accurate, I believe.”
Johnson personally, physically, had a tough time with the brisk conditions. The cold track and the nasty tire shake hurt his back.
Collins, his crew chief, said, “When it shook, it was so violent that it broke the x-frame, the x-member, the lower rear tree, and the tabs on the bellhousing – and Tommy. It broke him.
“It is what it is,” he said. “When it shakes, it’s pretty violent. We were pushing pretty hard.”
But “none of it” shocked Collins, he said. “The track was cold. It was tight. And it’s hard to get under power to get it done.”
One driver who said he didn’t have any problems with the cold weather here or at Pomona was Top Fuel’s Clay Millican. He didn’t fare any higher than sixth Friday, slid to seventh early Saturday, and ended up in the 11th starting position.
But he said, “We were all good. It was just rough for the fans. I hate it when it’s like this because it certainly keeps people from coming to the races - understandably. But the thing is when you have conditions like this, while, granted, you may not see the majority of the cars make it down the track under power, the chances are really good that when they do go, it’s going to be really fast. So it’s one of those deals where it’s nothing we can do about it, but the opportunity to go really fast is certainly there. When it’s cold out, these things make a lot more power. Not that they don’t make a lot already, but they make even more. The problem is the track is so cold it’s hard to get ahold of it.”
So sometimes the decision teeters on the line between whether it’s safe to run the cars or too cold.
“That’s why I say when it’s conditions like this, you’ll either see home runs or strikeouts,” Millican said. “It’s usually not much in between. And that’s kind of what we did at Pomona first round. We ended up being the only pair of Top Fuel cars that didn’t get down the track on Sunday.” Monday – race day – the track temperature was cold.
“We shook. We still made a good run,” he said. “I pedaled it and the car recovered, which was fun. But again, back to that hit-and-miss thing, in the opposite lane, Mike Salinas went 3.68 and 333 miles an hour. So that’s what you’ll get when the conditions are like this.”
Track and national records in all three pro classes remain intact so far this weekend.
Like Robert Hight after taking the No. 1 Funny Car position Saturday, Millican wondered what might happen when the weather pattern changes. Crew chiefs are getting used to the cold weather, but it surely will warm up at some point.
“Exactly. You know, you go to Gainesville, it’s subject to be hot. So at this point, I would be OK with that,” Millican said.
SPOILER ALERT – Cruz Pedregon speaks Spanish, but his command of the language isn’t what anyone would call extensive or formal. But on an NHRA FOX Sports / FS1 broadcast one of these days, he might show off his linguistic skills.
“We do a lot of Univision in Phoenix and Vegas and Texas, basically anywhere that has a Hispanic station that we can reach out to. We’re definitely into tapping into that market. It’s good to start off the season and kind of get him into the swing of things. We’ve got to get his Spanish back rolling again,” team General Manager Caleb Cox. “I always told him, ‘You know, it would be funny if he makes a good run, they interview him at the top end and he just does it all in Spanish. Not tell anybody, just 100 percent in Spanish, and just smile and then get back in the car and just kind of leave everybody kind of like questioning.
“That would be awesome,” Cox said, “because especially here, you’re going to have a Hispanic audience up in the stands. So Cruz just goes automatically into Spanish, gets back in the car, and then the Hispanics in the crowd are going to be like, ‘You know what? That’s cool. That’s somebody I can go root for instead of just seeing the name going by.
“I think that would be hilarious. I keep trying to get him to do it. I probably have to remind him on the radio after a run and be like, ‘Hey man, just do this one entirely in Spanish. Don’t say anything in English,’” he said.
Pedregon is one of three NHRA champions of Hispanic heritage. He has two Funny Car crowns, as does brother Tony – a FOX Sports analyst for the drag races (who might have to interpret for his older brother if he pulls the stunt). Hector Arana has a Pro Stock Motorcycle title. And the Pro Stock class has Fernando Cuadra, who has attracted Hispanic fans.
Cox said Pedregon “really connects with the Hispanic community. We do a lot with Snap-on with our ride-alongs every Thursday, and I think it’s great that Cruz is bilingual. So when we come to these mechanics shops or these different dealerships or whatever and you have Hispanic people working in there, Cruz can go straight to Spanish and have a conversation with them. Or we do interviews for NHRA for Univision or different Hispanic media. We can hit those markets with Cruz being able to speak Spanish. Hispanic people are very loyal to other Hispanic athletes, whether it be Cruz and Tony being race-car drivers or boxers. They’re very loyal, not national pride, but it’s more of there’s somebody to root for, like ‘Hey there’s somebody like me out there that can go out there and do this.’ There’s not much drag racing in Mexico. Everyone Hispanic wants to see another Hispanic succeed. That’s something that I’ve learned spending my eight years with him is other Hispanic people see him that are just like ‘Wow, we’ve got somebody to root for.’”
According to Cox, Pedregon is “funny how he does his Spanish interviews. You know, he uses a lot of slang in his Spanish, because it’s not really polished. He learned his Spanish from his dad, and his dad had a lot of kind of friends from the streets. So he’s always like ‘Eso’ and the other slang stuff that he loves to use. He likes to get silly with it.”
It plays in his favor.
“The Hispanic people are so into it,” Cox said. “There’s a gentleman out here this weekend that has a tattoo on his forearm of Flamin’ Frank’s [Pedregon’s father’s] dragster. He has been out here a couple years. We’ve met him a bunch, and it’s cool to see people have respect like that. They care about it so much that they want it tattooed on their body. That’s something real deep to people.”
With Frankie Pedregon – the oldest of the three brothers – racing at the Winternationals, Cox said, “It’s cool that you’ve got three brothers out here with Hispanic backgrounds that are a former racer, two current racers. I think that’s good for the sport as a whole. And it’s definitely good for the sport, tapping into different markets to bring more fans, bring even younger fans, and bring those kids that might be working at a local dealership to say, ‘Hey man, I can come out here and work on one of these’ or have the dream to come out and drive one.”
He said, “Hispanic people are loyal. Boxers like Julio Cesar Chavez, Cristobal, Arreola, the great Hispanic fighters, everybody, and it’s not just Hispanic people. Everybody loves those fighters, because they come to fight. They are somebody that people can get behind. I think it’s the same with the Pedregon brothers. They come to fight, single-car team against the big cars. It’s the same way in boxing. He’s an easygoing guy, but he’s competitive as all hell, like any of us are. It’s like anything else in competition: you don’t hate anybody until race day, and then they’re trying to take money and food away from you, so you’ve got to hate somebody on race day.”
PRITCHETT WANTS TO ‘RETURN FAVOR’ TO PHOENIX – Top Fuel racer Leah Pritchett said before she arrived at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, “I truly feel Phoenix is the start of the season for this team. We went into Pomona with a fair amount of question marks that we had to sort through during the race, and we now have a much better understanding of this power and chassis combination. I believe we will deliver the numbers on the scoreboard that our fans in Phoenix have come to expect.”
The Mopar Dodge Dragster driver will start seventh and line up against No. 10 qualifier Cameron Ferre.
She said late Saturday, "Q3 and Q4 were both planned early shut-offs. Our season-opener in Pomona created quite an extra amount of work, so we were erring on the side of parts attrition. We have to prepare to race as best as possible, and that’s what qualifying was for us. The issues we were having, we were experiencing early in the run and other ones were happening later in the run, so we were chipping away at it. We feel really good about going into race day tomorrow here in Phoenix. About 12 of the variables we’ve been fighting, we feel as if we’ve overcome them and we were erring on the safe side. We need to save our best parts for race day and get in the field. Not only did we get in the field, but we have lane choice.
"It feels good to be back in the MOPAR colors with the MOPAR power this weekend. I think the fans have taken a great liking to this updated MOPAR livery, and I believe they’ll take a great liking to the competition tomorrow,” Pritchett said. “The track will get better with the more runs that are made, and we feel good. Phoenix has always been really good to us. Just trying to return the favor and make it three wins here in Phoenix.”
JOHNSON REFLECTS ON 30 YEARS OF NITRO RACING, GRAHAM ALL-IN PRO STOCK MIX, PALMER HOT ON COLD WEATHER, FORCE GOING FOR VICTORY NO. 150, TORRENCE WING INCIDENT REMAINS MYSTERY
Tommy Johnson earned his only Englishtown, N.J., victory and his first ever at any racetrack from the No. 1 qualifying position in June 2007. That triumph he counts as “still my all-time win.” And that’s in 30 years of driving in the NHRA nitro-powered ranks.
In the first round that day, opposite Gary Densham, Johnson won but had to escape from his flaming Funny Car, which appeared to be too charred to fix. It looked like his day was done early. His crew pulled off a miracle, having a car ready for him in about an hour’s turnaround time. Johnson marched through the field and won that day. “I couldn’t believe that happened. It’s just not supposed to happen,” he said.
As this weekend’s NHRA Magic Dry Arizona Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park approached, Johnson looked both backward and forward as he kicked off his fourth decade in drag racing. He began his professional career here in 1989, driving a Top Fuel dragster.
He’s still looking for his first series championship after coming oh-so-close several times: second in 2016 and third on three other occasions (2014, 2015, and 2018). He is ready for his time in the spotlight. But he said the sport and all its glorious extremes are, too.
“It’s actually their time to shine. With people’s short attention span, we should be gaining traction right now. We are a short-attention-span sport,” Johnson said.
Announced sellout crowds one after another last year and a reportedly growing TV audience on FOX Sports and FS1 indicate increasing popularity, but Johnson, like many others, questions why drag racing hasn’t rocketed to a mainstream sport with over-the-top status to match its extreme nature on the track. In his 30-year retrospective, he offers some insights.
“This sport has grown, but there are times I don’t think it has grown to a level it should ‘s have. Where did we miss out? What went wrong? Why didn’t it get as big as it should have? Why did we not take advantage of this or that?
“I think we have to drive the personalities. The only way that TV’s going to make it more popular is if people get attached to the drivers. The cars aren’t going to come across on TV. People will say, ‘Yeah, it’s cool to see a car go fast. OK.’ But you still don’t get the feeling of it,” he said.
“It’s hard to get our sport to come across on TV – unless your TV explodes in your living room. That’s the only way they’re going to get it."
Johnson said, “The only way you’re going to connect with people on the TV is the driver personality – they’ll say, ‘I like that guy.’ People have to become emotionally attached to it. It seems to be headed that way a little bit.”
Getting people to experience the sport first-hand is the key, Johnson said.
“The one thing that amazes me is you can tell people what you do, and they say, ‘Oh, the one with the little tires in the front and the big ones in the back with the parachute? And I say, ‘Yeah.’ Everybody you talk to knows what it is, but yet they don’t know what it is. They say, ‘Nah, never been. I saw it one time when I was changing channels.’ What needs to be done to attract people to come and experience it once?” he asked, more rhetorically than if he expected a definitive answer. He said, “If I had the answer, I wouldn’t be driving. I’d be running the sanctioning body. They have an excellent product, and I get frustrated sometimes.”
But he said the sport is always a hit if a person experiences it in person: “Once you get them there, I don’t hear anybody say, ‘This sucks.’ They all love it.”
He didn’t leave out the media’s culpability in the dilemma, either.
“What’s the stigma with the media that they don’t want to cover it? I get aggravated about that,” Johnson said.
A story that Wally Parks shared was enlightening. Parks said that years ago, when the U.S. Nationals took place at Detroit, a local reporter told him, “I don’t like covering your events.” Park asked why, and the reporter told him that he has such limited space in the newspaper for his article that it’s too complicated to explain to the readers what the sport is all about, that he has no room left to tell what actually happened. “It’s too confusing,” he told Parks.
Johnson said, “I can see that. We have too many winners. Every other sport has one winner. We have too many. That’s the one thing that has probably held us back some – we’re too confusing.
“Once somebody experiences it, they love it. They’re standoffish sometimes, I think, because it’s a little confusing because there’s so much,” he said. “There’s Top Fuel, there’s Funny Car, there’s Pro Stock, there’s bikes, there’s sportsman. And there’s different kind of sportsmen: some get a head start and some don’t. The average fans is like, ‘Uhhh . . . I don’t get it.’
“I get the question a lot: ‘Where’d you finish?’ I say I went to the semifinals. They say, ‘Yeah, but where’s that finish you?’ They want to know if I was third or fourth. They don’t understand ‘semifinals.’ I say, ‘We don’t have positions.’ They say, ‘Oh. Why don’t you have positions?’ ”
He said he’s taken back a little by spectators who remark to him “I didn’t know it’d be like this.”
For Johnson, that begs the question: “What did you think it is?”
They’ll tell him, and he still shakes his head sometimes. “I think it’s overwhelming how professional it is. I’ve heard people ask my crew guys what they do when they’re not racing. They all kind of look like, ‘What do you mean, what do we do? This is what we do for a living.’ People say, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize.’”
Johnson also said, “That aggravates me when they call it the start-finish line. We start here and finish down there. We don’t do it the same place like everybody else does. We’re a little different, but it doesn’t hurt to be a little different. I wouldn’t want to be like everybody else.
“There’s days that I look at it and say, ‘I don’t know that I want it to be that [exponentially bigger, like more recognized forms of motorsport].’ Do you want to have to close the pits off because there are so many people you can’t move? I don’t know if we want to do that.”
The positive news lies in the evolution of the sport.
“It has progressed,” Johnson said. “Look at the performance of the cars. There’s times I’ll see a picture of a car I drove back in the day. And I’ll think, ‘I can’t believe I got in that thing. What was I doing? What were we thinking, driving cars like that?’ I think about when I started driving Top Fuel and how unsafe they were – very little roll-bar padding. No seat. I wouldn’t have a bad back if I had had these [current] seats my entire career. We just sat on a piece of aluminum. So we’ve definitely advanced.”
Johnson indicated he plans to stick around for as long as he can and see what else he might observe.
MORGAN-INSPIRED GRAHAM JUMPING INTO DEEP END OF PRO STOCK POOL – Steve Graham and his older brother Shaun grew up dreaming and scheming in dad Phil Graham’s San Francisco auto-body shop, surrounded by hot rods and custom cars. Phil Graham never did much racing, but young Steve couldn’t stop thinking about those beauties that were mere accessories at the garage.
But one particular car he admired from afar.
“Always in the back of my mind was a car I saw on TV as a kid. It was Larry Morgan's Castrol-sponsored car doing a burnout, and he was pulling gears on a Lenco at that time. I don’t know what is was about that, but I can still picture it clear as can be to this day,” the Pro Stock newcomer said. “That's what hooked me to Pro Stock at about seven-10 years old, I would guess.”
The name Steve Graham isn’t as familiar yet to drag-racing, or even Pro Stock, fans as those of Erica Enders, Jeg Coughlin, and Greg Anderson. But from about 1999-2008, it was on the radar of certain police departments in the Bay Area.
“When I got my license on my 16th birthday, that's when all hell broke loose. My brother and I have always been very competitive people. So naturally, when cars are your life, I always thought racing came with it,” Graham said. “From 16 to about 25, I cut my teeth racing on the street every Friday and Saturday night. Eventually after [we got] in trouble so much, my parents didn't want to know what my brother and I were doing anymore and cringed every time the phone rang late at night.”
Steve Graham is 35 years old now, Shaun 39, and they have wised up about street racing. Steve is based in South San Francisco, and has “a very understanding wife, Lisa, and five-year-old son, Evan.” He got away from street stunts and worked at an engine shop in the city for 10 years, building 360 sprint-car engines and bracket-drag-racing engines.
“I feel lucky that my racing background is pretty broad, from dirt circle track, pavement circle track, go karts, and of course my life-long love, drag racing,” Graham said. “About five years ago, when my son was born, I took a job with the city and county of San Francisco as a machinist at the San Francisco Airport. I guess it was time to grow up!”
But he couldn’t help himself.
“Around 25 years old, I saw a Pro Stock Truck for sale for $20,000. I sold my Mustang street / race car and bought it. I had no motor or trans, no idea what to do with it, no money to do anything even if I did have an idea. I was way in over my head,” Graham said.
“A good friend of mine I met in a street race – Brian Moscini, who helps me on the Pro Stock car – had an idea to race Comp Eliminator. All I knew was you could get to the finish line first and win. That was all I needed,” he said. “Brian bought an ex-[Bill] Jenkins Pro Stock Truck engine and an auto, and we put it in the truck. Brian drove the truck, and we went out there and couldn't get out of our own way. But it gave us a path to go down.
“I sold the truck and bought a Haas Pro Stock Truck and I found a Jenkins Po Stock Truck motor for myself and a five-speed, and it has been great ever since. I sold the truck and moved up to an ex-Jim Yates Grand Am. I won my first Comp race in 2009 and went to, I believe, six final rounds after that. All in that time, I sold the Yates car and bought an ex-Pro Stock Dodge Stratus, ran it in C/A then sold that and bought a GXP. We set a national record in C/A in Comp and finished as high as third in the division. I partnered with Bob Book to run 400-inch Pro Stock in the NMCA in 2016. We went back for three races and were runner-up in Indy and won Chicago,” Graham said.
Then in November 2017, he had an epiphany.
“At the end of ’17, in Pomona, I went back to the hotel Friday night and just out of the blue decided I was going to run Pro Stock,” Graham said. “Now, we had talked about it several times before but never felt it was reachable. For some reason that night, just like I did when I bought my first Pro Stock Truck, I just decided I’m doing it. I had no clue how to put it together, but I was going to do it.
“The next morning,” he said, “I took my car up to tech and had them do a body template. It didn’t pass for Pro Stock. So as soon as I got home from Pomona, I put it up for sale and sold it and went and bought Shane Tucker’s Bickel[-built] Camaro. I talked with Chris and Lester McGaha – I had known them from racing with them in Comp – and they made me a unbelievable deal on renting engines. And away we went.”
Graham credits the McGaha family – Lester, Valois, and Chris – and Harlow Sammons Racing: “Without their help and generosity, this wouldn’t be possible.”
For Graham, “this” includes his career-first round-win less than two weeks ago at Pomona. He defeated Deric Kramer with his quickest and fastest pass (6.607 seconds, 210.41mph). Graham lost to Jason Line in the quarterfinals, but he left knowing he was headed in the right direction. He said that mini-triumph “felt better than winning my first race in Comp!”
He divested himself of the ex-Tucker car, selling it at the racetrack after the Houston event last spring, drove straight to the McGahas’ shop at Odessa, Texas, and bought their Haas Camaro that they had purchased from Mike Edwards when Chris stepped up to Pro Stock.
“Here we are now, winning our first professional round against Kramer, who is one of the best drivers in Pro Stock, in my opinion,” Graham said with a mix of wonder and pride.
Soon Graham will be a fan favorite, for his welcoming attitude and for his plain-spokenness.
“I don’t put ropes up at my pit, because I want everyone to be able to come in and see the car. I know how it felt being on the other side of those ropes, feeling awkward as hell,” he said. “My group of guys are all regular 9-5 guys with families and problems just like every other normal person out there. We almost came home Sunday night from Pomona because we had work and more important kids to pick up from Grandmas and school. Luckily for us, the grandparents continued to help out, and our bosses were understanding.
“We as a group – from my parents (Phil and Sue), my wife and son, my crew Brian Moscini, Brian Brewer, Brian Weber, Harlow Sammons Racing, and Chris, Lester, Valois McGaha – are all here to prove that you can run Pro Stock and be competitive and not have to be millionaires,” Graham said. “We run Pro Stock and are not any different than the people in the sportsman classes. The reputation about Pro Stock needs to change.
“We are a low-budget team, but insert the right group of people and you have a shot,” he said. “You have to choose people that want to see you succeed, not bleed you of what you have and spit you out for their benefit. I have a few great sponsors, but when I say sponsors, these aren’t multi-thousand-dollar sponsorships. These are small businesses that like to see a person’s hard work pay off. Dennis from Taco Bravo fast-food restaurant in Campbell, Calif., is our main sponsor.”
Others backing Graham are Jim and Sue Raz of Brady's Moving and Storage, of Chico, Calif.; Gotelli Speed Shop, of South San Francisco; John Ruffolo of Drag Racing Performance Parts (dragracingperformanceparts.com); and Tim Miranda of Mr. Race Oil. Graham said Mr. Race Oil “provides us the best oil for Pro Stock out there. All these people make it possible, and we are actively seeking more sponsorship, if anyone would like to support the underdog that just needs a shot.”
FOR PALMER, COLD CONDITIONS = HOT TICKET – Cool ambient and track temperatures gave tuners and drivers a tough time at the Pomona season opener, but Scott Palmer said he loves the performance possibilities that a weather encore brings this weekend. He calls the whole phenomenon “insane” – and said he wouldn’t miss it for anything.
"With the cooler conditions setting up the way they are going to be this weekend, everybody is going to be super-fast," the driver of the Magic Dry Organic Absorbent Dragster said. "If we are lucky, it's going to be a high of maybe 60 degrees, so it's going to make for a very stout and tight racetrack. There will be a lot of career-bests set this weekend, for sure. It'll be one of those deals where the track is going to take anything you throw at it. Racing will be crazy, because if what you throw at it sticks, anybody can beat anyone else. It's tough enough as it is, but these cooler conditions are going to make it even tougher. I'll tell you, if I wasn't racing myself I'd be buying a ticket for this one."
"We got some good information in Pomona, and we ran three career-best elapsed times there. It was a great outing for us,” Palmer said. But, proving how tough the competition is this year, we ran those career-bests just to qualify and then we needed even more to win on Sunday. We had to go up and try to run faster than we've ever run in Round 1 to get the win. It's insane."
Palmer is as much a marketing partner for his supporters as he is a serious racer. And because this is the first race sponsored by Magic Dry Organic Absorbent, another product of Tommy Thompson (just like Cat Spot Litter, which appeared on the dragster the last two seasons), Palmer said he’s feeling the stress to deliver for parent company Midwest Organics.
"There is enough pressure as it is, but when Magic Dry is the title sponsor, you want to step up even more and do good for all the people that stand behind you," he said. "It won't be easy. The quality of cars out here is pretty stout right now. We're seeing one of the toughest fields in history. Everybody out here is fast. You can't overlook anyone.”
However, Palmer said, "We'll go out there, just like we did in Pomona, and try our best to make a good run in Q1. If we do, we'll be able to go for it every round after that. Everybody that runs nitro is going to do the same thing. When it's cool like this, if you don't go for it every round, you're crazy. The worst that can happen is you shake the tires and don't make it down. So you might as well be swinging for the fences.
"We have a car capable of running big numbers. We will just see what it takes to win this race this weekend,” he said.
His crew has two members who have never been on a race team and two who have moved over from other teams. “Everybody just worked together so well. The car is great, the crew is great, and we've got a lot of excitement around our team. I'm happy," Palmer said.
WILL FORCE REACH VICTORY NO. 150 HERE? – John Force is seeking his 150th victory. He has been on the verge of it since earning his 149th last July at Denver – which ended a 34-race drought. Because of his positive start to this season at Pomona, Calif., the 16-time series champion has a feeling it could happen at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park this weekend.
“We had a good start in Pomona. We made some needed adjustments and got this thing going fast. Heading into Phoenix, I think we’ll continue to build on that and keep this car moving forward,” Force said. “We want to get win 150, so that’s what we’re striving for here.”
Force has won here eight times in 14 final rounds, more than any other racer in NHRA history. And he has an extraordinary 63-26 elimination-round record here at Phoenix. Half of his Phoenix victories came consecutively from 1994-1997. He has qualified No. 1 eight times, most recently in 2014.
The PEAK Coolant and Motor Oil Chevy Camaro driver last year experienced one of his dreadful moments at this racetrack. He won his race against Jonnie Lindberg, but a fiery engine explosion propelled him across the track, crashing into Lindberg. It was the second of three wrecks in consecutive races to start the 2018 season.
“We crashed last year at Phoenix, but you know, it was a learning experience for us, and we got past it. This has always been a race that’s good to me,” Force said.
On a more inspirational note, this is the place where, in February 2008, Force astonished everyone – perhaps most of all his physical therapists – by returning to the cockpit of his Funny Car after sustaining overwhelming injuries from a crash months before near Dallas.
“I’ve been successful here, so has Robert [Hight] and Brittany [daughter Force], and I think Austin will too. His new crew chiefs are son-in-law Dan Hood and Brian Corradi, who guided Courtney Force to the Funny Car victory here last February. John Force said his strong passes in preseason testing here gave him “an idea of what we can do to get this hot rod from A to B and go some rounds.”
TORRENCE WING INCIDENT STILL A MYSTERY – The Capco Contractors Dragster team still has no answers why the center element of Billy Torrence’s rear wing flew off during a qualifying run at Pomona two weeks ago.
“It would be nice if NHRA would find it and give it to us. I’m serious. We’ve asked several times and haven’t received it back. NHRA knows. I mean, we’ve asked them several times to get the piece for us, and we still haven’t seen it,” crew chief Jason McCulloch said Friday. “We can’t really say what happened to it until we see the pieces, and NHRA has yet to produce the pieces for us.
“It did not fly into the stands. A guy on the track picked it up and carried it and set it alongside the guard wall. They had their hands on it, we just haven’t seen it since then,” he said.
“The manufacturer [Aerodine] would like to see it. We would like to see it. It’s important for us to be able to look at the parts, and I think that everybody needs to understand that,” McCulloch said. “Somehow it’s disappeared. They say they can’t find it.”
He said the actual loss of the wing panel didn’t shock him: “It’s part of racing. It’s not the first time it’s happened. Tony Schumacher did it in Reading. We did it in Reading, that element, before. That was probably 2006 or 2007, somewhere along that time frame.”
TWO PRO STOCK DRIVERS SKIP THIS EVENT – Two racers have opted out of the Pro Stock field this weekend, but the class still will have a full grid of 16 here. For different reasons, Shane Tucker and Jeff Isbell will bypass this event and return for the March 14-17 Amalie Oil Gatornationals at Gainesville, Fla.
For Tucker, the reason is a delay in the delivery of some badly needed back-up parts. He said his Auzmet Architectural/StructGlass Chevy Camaro encountered “an issue that was hurting the motor. We ordered the necessary parts but just ran out of time before the race at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park. We intended to make the race as early as [Wednesday]. But rather than head west and maybe be competitive, we decided to regroup and put our best foot forward at the Gatornationals in a few weeks. We plan on doing some testing before then to make sure we are squared away.
“I am disappointed to miss Phoenix, especially since there will be a Pro Stock exclusive Fox broadcast on FS1 after the race. Everyone on the team is focused on performing at a high level, but pulling everything together just takes time. I have the highest confidence in my team and crew chiefs that we will be in great shape heading into Gainesville.”
Tucker has competed sporadically on the NHRA tour since 2014. But the 33-year-old Australian who is based at Dallas has decided to commit to a serious run at the Countdown. His father, Rob, and respected engine builder Nick Ferri help lead the charge.
Meanwhile, Isbell, of Salt Lake City, announced Thursday in a Facebook post that he is skipping this trip to Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park because “unfortunately, I have had something come up.” He said he plans to compete with his new Sun Print Solutions-branded Ford Mustang throughout the remainder of the 24-race schedule.
ALL GONE – At the time this event began this weekend, the three pro racers who own all the track records here aren’t racing right now. Pro Stock’s Mike Edwards stepped from the driver’s seat following the 2013 season. He set his class’ records (6.498 seconds. 213.77 mph) in February 2013, making his the longest-standing track standards. On the way to last year’s Funny Car victory, recently retired Courtney Force set both ends of her category’s marks at 3.826, 337.16. Her speed is tops among pro racers. Tony Schumacher, still trying to secure funding for his Top Fuel operation, rewrote both ends of the dragster class record a year ago at 3.649, 336.57.
CAPPS WANTS TO BE FIRST HELLCAT WINNER – Ron Capps, author of a new blog for Autoweek magazine, will have plenty to talk about in his next installment if he can become the first driver to land the Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat in the winners circle.
“We didn’t test at Wild Horse Pass, and one might think that’s a disadvantage compared to the teams that did go, but I always brag about the NAPA Know How [crew chief Rahn] Tobler has with our NAPA team. It’s times like this that get me excited, knowing we have a great race car with our Dodge Hellcat body. I’ve really only made two full runs on it, and I can already tell the balance is great, the aerodynamics are improved, and I really think we’re going to have a lot of success with it this year. Phoenix is a track where we’ve won in the past (2003, 2009, 2013), and we’d love nothing better than to put our new Pennzoil Synthetics/NAPA AUTO PARTS Dodge Hellcat in the winner’s circle. No one at DSR has won with the new Hellcat body yet, and we’d love to make Steve Beahm [of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles] happy by being the team to do it first."
Capps also is a four-time runner-up at this facility, in 1998, 2000, 2005, and 2017. He said, "The Phoenix track has traditionally shown it can hold world-record-setting runs and with the weather conditions showing cool temperatures this weekend, it’s looking to be a fast one. It doesn’t take a whole lot for me to get pumped up when I walk into the NAPA pit area with a leader like Tobler, [assistant crew chief] Dustin Heim, and our NAPA AutoCare team.”
The team is running its Pennzoil Synthetics/NAPA paint scheme for the first time this year, and Capps said, “It looks even better on the Dodge Hellcat body.” This particular livery debuted last August at Seattle, where Capps and Company showed it off in the winners circle. “To see it on the Hellcat body has got me even more excited. There’s nothing better than to be able to take a special paint scheme from someone like our partners at Pennzoil and win with it,” Capps said. “I know we’re going to have a huge contingent of not only NAPA folks, but also Pennzoil guests this weekend.”
HIGHT ON HIGH FROM POMONA – Robert Hight, aiming for back-to-back victories this weekend, is super-pumped and said his crew chief, Jimmy Prock, is, too: “We put the work in during the off-season, and that showed at Pomona. I’m really excited to see what this car can do. And Jimmy Prock, I’ve never seen him more confident. He’s really happy with the way this thing [his Auto Club of Southern California Chevy Camaro] runs. I’m ready to show more of what this team is capable of.”
The Funny Car points leader said, “We saw a lot of great racing in Pomona, and you’re going to see more of it all year long. It’s close and competitive, and you have to be on your game at the starting line. You have to have consistency with your car. We have that.”
He discovered at Pomona that he had something else that’s invaluable.
When he won the Winternationals final, Hight said, “I want to say a couple things about the crew guys on my team. Chris Adams, Ryan Heileson, Nate Hildahl, and Justin Covarrubias, these guys have been here for a long time. And we had a lot of turnover on my team this year. We have some new guys on the team. And to watch those guys mentor the young guys and get them into shape and come out here . . . We were busting it [on race day at Pomona]. We had to turn this thing around in a hurry and this new team, they’ve performed flawlessly. So I’m proud of those guys, but I’m really proud of the older guys who are stepping up and taught these guys. It’s fun to watch.”
Looking ahead to this race, where he is one-for-four in final-round appearances (winning in 2012), Hight said, “It’s always an interesting race for us. We’ve won there before and set some records, so we’re confident and hoping to be back in that winners circle again. It would be a great start to the season with back-to-back wins.”
WANTS MORE – Three-time Phoenix Funny Car winner Jack Beckman already is craving a marathon of races in successive weekends.
“I actually wish we had three or four races in a row right now,” the driver of the Infinite Hero Dodge Charger said. “After skipping pre-season testing, I thought we did an outstanding job at Pomona, considering we changed some of the fuel system and all but one of our clutch discs, and we’re [entering] Phoenix in second place. We came seven-thousandths [of a second] away from leaving Pomona with the trophy, so I think we have one of the best cars out there right now. It’s going to force me to drive at a higher level. With two new guys on the team, I think we jelled super-quick, so I am totally looking forward to [this weekend]. That track has been super-good to me in the past, and I’d love another trophy from Wild Horse Pass Motorsports.”
Beckman, who racked up his 400th round-win with is first-round solo pass at Pomona, won here at Phoenix in 2008, 2010, and 2011. Beckman advanced to the final at Auto Club Raceway but lost on a holeshot to Robert Hight.
“As a driver, the last thing you want is to look at that time slip and see that you got beat on a holeshot,” Beckman said. Just the same, he said, “I am so proud of everybody here [in his pit]. We didn’t test. We were struggling until the last qualifying run and then laid down a lap that put us second, but I don’t think that painted the full picture. We had made wholesale changes – five out of our six clutch discs are different than when we left here in November, and for the guys to zero-in on it that quick without the benefit of pre-season testing and take this car to the final round and run it as quick as anybody right now, I can’t wait for [more].”
COUGHLIN CONFIDENT – If Jeg Coughlin advances to the final round this Sunday, he’ll hit the 1,000th round-win plateau of his decorated career. His chances are strong. He has won the Phoenix national event three times, twice in Pro Stock (2000, 2009) and once in Super Stock (1995). At a 1997 Division 7 Lucas Oil Series event, he won the Comp trophy.
"We have every intention of winning this race again," Coughlin said. "The JEGS.com hot rod was fast in Pomona, but for one reason or another we ended up on the bottom half of the qualifying ladder and had severe tire spin in Round 1 that sent us home early. So we're looking for a reversal of fortune this weekend.”
He has plenty of faith in his car: "I said before the season opener that this is the best-running car I've had at the start of the season since I've raced with Elite Motorsports. This is a track where we've had great success in the past, and we tested well there a few weeks back so we're expecting big things.
"It’s uncharacteristically cold this weekend, but we just encountered the same situation in Pomona, so we're already on task to find a good cold-weather setup. All five of the Elite cars ran well in Pomona, and we ended up with two cars in the final four. So the crew chiefs are doing their jobs. I know we'll see more of the same this weekend and hopefully one of us can pull off the victory. Obviously, whenever you race at a facility where you've won in the past, your comfort level is higher than normal. Plus, the fact we were just here, running really good numbers, lets you know the team has a handle on the track. If we stay fast and efficient, we can be the ones smiling on Sunday."