2019 NHRA NATIONALS - NORWALK NOTEBOOK

 

 

       

 

SUNDAY NOTEBOOK - NORWALK
 

TORRENCE BEATS DAKIN IN A GENERATIONAL TOP FUEL FINAL - Talk about a generation gap.

When longtime racer Pat Dakin made his Top Fuel debut way back in 1971, current Top Fuel superstar Steve Torrence hadn’t even been born yet. In fact, it would be another decade and then some before Torrence would enter into the world.

On Sunday at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals, Torrence and Dakin met in the final of Top Fuel in a battle of two racers separated by 35 years of racing experience and 37 years of age.

“I was rooting for Pat Dakin. Man, I’ll tell you what, that guy is just a cool dude,” said Torrence of his final round opponent. “We are good buddies with Dakin and most of the guys that work on his team also work on my old man’s car. It was pretty cool to race him in the final round at his home-state race. We needed the points, but he probably wanted the win just to kick my butt. You couldn’t have had a better final round.”

In one of the more unlikely finals of the season, Torrence took down the veteran racer competing in his first NHRA final since 1998 in what turned out to be a tremendous drag race. Torrence nipped Dakin at the tree and held him off with a 3.832-second pass at 323.27 mph in the Capco Contractors dragster. Dakin, meanwhile, crossed the stripe with a 3.909 at 301.40 mph.

The win gives Torrence his sixth Wally in the past seven races and the 33rd of his career. It was also Torrence’s second win at Summit Motorsports Park, breaking a streak of nine different winners in the last nine races at the track.

“How about those Capco boys. We are out here doing this and it is pretty unbelievable to have the success that we’ve had,” Torrence said. “All the glory goes to God because I’ll tell you what, there were some rounds today where the driver was terrible and the boys saved us. But at the end of the day, you don’t win one of these things without a little bit of luck on your side and we had that today.”

Torrence had to navigate a tricky afternoon on a track that wreaked havoc on many of the racers in multiple classes - from Top Fuel to Pro Stock. In a game of survival, Torrence had wins over Jordan Vandergriff, Doug Kalitta and Brittany Force. While many of those matchups, at least on paper, looked lopsided in his favor, it was far from the case.

In his second and third round matchups, Torrence ran into issues in both. He put a hole out in his win over Kalitta - a 3.836 to a 4.077 - and then got a little squirrely on the top end in his race against No. 1 qualifier Force. Torrence had a 3.820 at 326.71 mph in his win over Force, who slowed at the top end with a 4.114 at 272.89 mph.

But in both he advanced, propelling him to his 49th career final round.

“Coming through qualifying I think I averaged a 56 light in the four runs and today I wasn’t in the 50s (on the tree) except for in the final round. Some days you come out here and you feel really on top of your game and some days you are a little slow feeling. Today was one of those slow days,” Torrence said. “And unfortunately, it was one of those days where I needed to be really on top of my game. When track conditions are like they are where it is a little bit tricky and you have to count on the crew chief to go down through there, those guys had my back.

“It went down four laps in a row and the guy in the other lane just made a mistake. This is completely a team sport. Without those guys that are turning the knobs and working on it and giving Richard Hogan and Bobby Lagana a car to tune, it is nothing. I am just the hood ornament for the Capco boys. I am pretty happy and proud to drive it.”

Dakin ran into similar issues in his path to the final, running laps of 3.806, 7.378 and 4.603 to reach his seventh career final in wins over Mike Salinas, Terry McMillen and Leah Pritchett.

Dakin’s last NHRA final occurred in Atlanta in 1998 in a loss to Cory McClenathan.

Meanwhile, Torrence was in his seventh consecutive final, with only a loss to Mike Salinas one week ago in Bristol keeping him from seven-straight wins. But the team was able to put that hiccup behind them and came out swinging in Ohio.

“We had a parts failure. It broke a crank. Not taking anything away from him, but we left on (Salinas). We had four hundredths on him at the starting line and we were ahead at half track and the car just didn’t last,” Torrence said. “That is part of Top Fuel racing. It is a wonder that they even crank sometimes. It didn’t really do anything to us mentally. You know, at some point something is going to happen even if everybody does their job perfectly. It is racing.

“We just took it and rolled with the punches and came back out here ready to go to work.”

Torrence will try to keep that momentum going - having won 25 of the last 56 races - when the team travels to Epping, New Hampshire in two weeks for the NHRA New England Nationals. Larry Crum

TASCA III MAKES IT TWO WINS IN A ROW WITH NORWALK VICTORY - Make it two in a row for Bob Tasca lll

After struggling early in the season and changing up the lineup with his crew, Tasca III has found his groove.

Tasca III won his second Mello Yello Series national event in a row, claiming the title at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals in Norwalk, Ohio, Sunday.

Tasca captured the title by ousting Jack Beckman in the final round.

Tasca clocked a 4.383-second lap at 245.09 mph to defeat Beckman, who slowed to 11.764 seconds after smoking the tires right off the starting line.

Tasca, who won in Bristol, Tenn., last week, snared back-to-back wins for the first time in his career, bringing his win total to 6.

“I’ve worked a lot of years to get to this place and there were days I never thought I would get back here,” Tasca said. “This sport can take everything from you. It can tear you’re heart out. Someone said, ‘never give up, don’t ever give up (Jimmy Valvano)’ and I never gave up and I thank the people who never gave up on me. None more important than the Ford Motor Company. They came back and I just dreamed of being able to give them a Hot Rod like we have. When you have the names of (Mike) Neff, (Jon) Shaffer, and (Eric) Lane up in that trailer and guys who bolt that thing together, I always knew if I could get the right car under me, we could do great things. I woke up this morning and I was as confident as I ever was. Not cocky, I always say confident.”

Tasca’s victory march Sunday consisted of wins over Matt Hagan, Paul Lee, John Force and Beckman.

“When you make four runs in the 3s, in very challenging conditions, there was no reason why we could not have won this race and I’m glad we got it done,” Tasca III said. “I just talked to my good friend Steve Torrence and he knows a thing or two about rolls, and he said just keep riding it. I’m going to take him up on that advice and we are just going to keep riding it. The beauty of what we are doing with this team is we are going out and we are really performing at a high level every time the car goes down the race track and we are gathering data. The more data we have, the better this team will be. We are not making wholesale changes anymore, we have kind of landed in a sweet spot and like I said, Mike Neff, Jon Shaffer and Eric Lane, those are three of some of the most talented guys out here on this car. I’m excited for Motorcraft, I’m excited for Ford and all the sponsors who support us. This is what they pay us to do. They pay us to go out and perform and win and competed for a championship and anything less we’re not delivering on the promises we make and I’m just very excited to be able to do that.”

Tasca admitted that during his first two round wins Sunday, he wasn’t in sync.

“I heard Matt (Hagan) double step it and I knew I wasn’t late because I didn’t see the tree come down, so that was a little strange,” Tasca said. “I will not call it intimidation but let me tell you something when you have a car as good as mine, running as good as it is it gets in your head. You have to cut a light to run with us and clearly Matt is a champion and he’s one of the best out here and he just made a mistake and it can happen to any of us. Then, the second round against Paul Lee, he just flat out left. I don’t even know if the tree went down. I just hit the throttle when I heard him go and that was crazy.”

Tasca then took a moment to discuss his semifinal match-up with legendary John Force. The same Force he beat in the finals in Bristol.

“What can I say about Johnny,” Tasca said. “He and I have some history up there and I was prepared to burn it to the ground. He does what he does up there, and I don’t know what he does sometimes, shallow, top bulb out and I just wait. I can’t count to 77, but I can count to 7 and I just gave him his opportunity to do whatever he wanted to do. There is no one out here I get up more for than John Force and that’s because I have the ultimate respect for him. I don’t think anyone out here could live to be 1000 and do what that man has done in a race car. So, you better pay attention when you run the champ and that’s what he is to me, a mentor. I just took my time and it was just a great old’ drag race. We left pretty close and our hot rod made a great full pull.”

Tasca said the addition of tuner Neff has been a jolt to his team.

“Neff is tough on me,” Tasca said. “That kid is a lion behind closed doors, and he said you robbed me two hundredths of putting a 96 on the board, Tasca. I said Neff, we won. Mike Neff has really changed the whole attitude inside our trailer. He has helped me pick up my game and he’s helped our team pick up its game. He looks at me with fire in his eyes and I always wanted to race with this guy my whole career. I just knew we had this chemistry and to bring in our trailer with Schaffer and Lane, it has been exciting for me.”

Tasca did have trouble describing Neff’s job title for his team. Neff was the crew chief on Tony Schumacher’s Top Fuel dragster last season.

“He’s the chief, consultant engineer of the chiefs,” Tasca said. “What can I tell you? He’s the man in my trailer. What he says goes and what is interesting is the chemistry. It is not just Mike Neff. Mike Neff can’t win anything out here without a team. I see Schaffer and Eric bouncing things off him, but at the end of the day, you have to have a boss. Somebody has to say that’s what we are going to do, and Neff has been that voice in our trailer right now and it has obviously worked. I have the utmost respect for Schaffer and Lane, and they have the utmost respect for Neff and that’s why it works. Because if they had egos, and they were working against one another it doesn’t work.

Mike and Jon raced together for many, many years, and Eric was in that Force machine with those guys and it just works. I said to Schumacher, because Mike Neff is on Don’s payroll and everyone knows that and we have a technical alliance with Don, that’s what it is. We have been very up front with it, and we needed technical advice. When we made this big change, Mike Neff was the obvious person to come over and help us with that with the people we had. It has worked, maybe better than some people thought, but I really thought it was going to work the day we pulled this trade off with John Force. Obviously, I’m very happy with the outcome and I’m looking forward to the rest of the season.”  Tracy Renck

MCGAHA CLAIMS NORWALK’S PRO STOCK CROWN - Chris McGaha seems to be forgotten about sometimes in NHRA’s Pro Stock class.

The Odessa, Texas, racer picks and chooses his race schedule and just when it seems he will not be a factor at a national event – he wins.

That was the case Sunday.

McGaha qualified third, and mowed down the competition, culminating with his victory in the finals over Alex Laughlin at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals in Norwalk, Ohio.

McGaha clocked a 6,620-second elapsed time at 210.11 mph to edge Laughlin, who came in at 6.668 seconds at 208.75 mph.

McGaha had an impressive victory parade, knocking off Wally Stroupe and former world champions Greg Anderson and Bo Butner in the KB Racing stable, before upending Laughlin in the final round.

“It started with a bad light in the first round and I probably should have gotten trailered by Wally Stroupe with that bad light, but somehow we got back around him,” McGaha said. “The second round I was a little better on the tree and it was a long tree because even Greg said something about it being a long tree and I think we were both about 90. I had no idea he shook, I just didn’t see him. The semis, we just kept dragging the same car up there much like a bracket racer would do. I just kept taking the same car back up there all four rounds. I botched the burnout really bad in the semis. I’m sure everybody thought we were done. I tried to do it again and I guess I didn’t back up in the water enough. I said it is what it is and I took it to the line and let it rip and the next thing I knew we won that round and were in the finals. We just kept doing the same, the basic service and dragging the same car up there.”

Not bad, considering McGaha only had a 4-6 elimination round record before Norwalk and lost in the first round at the last event to Richard Freeman in Chicago.

This was McGaha’s first win of the season and eighth of his career and first since Epping, N.H., in 2018.

“These clutches are sensitive, like I said I totally botched the burnout in the semis,” McGaha said. “It stuck the tire and I backed up and apparently I didn’t back up enough. I did see the crew running around in a frenzy. I was kind of laughing saying it is what it is. I didn’t back up enough, so it stuck it even worse and that point I was like I probably have done enough damage to the clutch that I probably need to just stage the thing at this point. I staged it and I’m like it is either going to go or it is not. It was a dice roll at that point and we will see what happens.”

The next race for McGaha and the Pro Stock class is the Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway in Denver, July 19-21.

“You have to change so much at Denver that it is definitely luck, that’s what that is I feel like,” said McGaha about racing in the high altitude of Denver. “It is a totally unique tune-up, especially in the gearing and the transmission. You have to almost learn how to drive again. It kind of reminds you of a Comp car. I’ve had to train myself over the years to wait for the shift light and you get back up there and it is fast again.”

McGaha took a moment to offer his opinion on Pro Stock’s new 18-race schedule this season.

“I think it is (positive),” said McGaha said. “I was only going to run 16 to 18 races anyway even if they had 24. I don’t want to say I have a real job, but I guess I do. I have other obligations and it has been kind of nice because I started some new projects this year in the oilfield shop and it has helped. Plus, I think not going to Bristol between Chicago and here, I didn’t really do a lot. I really sat down and wore a notebook out and a calculator out really looking at my set up and I think it paid off. Just clearing my mind and sitting and thinking about it.” Tracy Renck

HINES SURVIVES TRICKY AFTERNOON WITH WIN IN ALL-HARLEY FINAL - The numbers are staggering.

173 final rounds. 100 combined victories. 90 top qualifier awards.

It is safe to say that Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec know their way around a race track.

And that is what made Sunday’s Pro Stock Motorcycle final round between Hines and Krawiec at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals so much fun. It was a good, clean, old-fashioned slugfest between two of the best to ever hop on the back of a motorcycle as Andrew Hines grabbed the win Sunday at Summit Motorsports Park.

“From my point of view it was a flawless run,” a confident Hines said. “I was just riding down through there tucked in behind the windscreen waiting on the shift light to come on. I just have a great group of guys behind me right now.”

Hines earned his fifth win of 2019 and 53rd of his career aboard his Screamin’ Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson Sunday, leading wire-to-wire against Kraweic in the final. Hines ran a 6.895-second pass at 196.99 mph in picking up the win, his fifth at Norwalk as the Vance & Hines team have combined to win eight of the 13 races run at the northern Ohio track.

Krawiec, meanwhile, fell short for the seventh time in a final over the past two seasons with a 6.967 at 196.64 mph. And, in many of those runner-up finishes, a vast majority came against his teammate in all-Harley finals.

“In the final round lane choice was a big deal. We were able to get lane choice over Eddie and we put him over in the right lane. His bike had a tendency to spin all day long so we put him over in the greasier lane,” Hines said. “I kept my head mellow and got the job done. The guys worked really hard to give me a good bike. They do a great job making sure we have phenomenal motorcycles and we were able to plow through the conditions and make the right tuning calls today.”

During a tricky afternoon that impacted all of the competitors on a track that changed vastly over the course of the weekend, Hines survived and advanced against Marc Ingwersen, Angelle Sampey and Matt Smith.

Hines ran low elapsed time for the event in his round one win over Ingwersen, before facing two tricky matchups against brand new teammate Sampey and rival Smith.

Sampey ran with Hines on the third bike in the Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson camp, but hit the timing blocks at the top end of the track, negating her run. Then, in the semifinal, Hines faced his closest race of the day, edging Smith with a 6.864 at 197.13 mph to Smith’s 6.891 at 198.88 mph.

All-in-all in was a successful day for Hines, who continued his dominance in the class with five wins in seven total races this season.

“You never know how these races are going to pan out. The competition is tough and each round you have to earn it,” Hines said. “Today it was different conditions than the rest of the weekend and it really threw our motorcycles for a little bit of a loop. But for some reason, my motorcycle tends to work really well on a greasy track.

“Today was interesting. I helped Marc (Ingwersen) with some software this weekend before knowing we were going to be running him so that was a challenge. Then we ended up running Angelle in the second round, which was our first time racing as teammates. With the history we have had in the past, we rolled up there and it was like no big deal racing her. She had a good bike and I knew if she had made a good run I was going to have a heck of a time, unfortunately she hit the cones down there.

“Then, going against my nemesis Matt Smith, his red motorcycle has been fast here lately, he just hasn’t caught a break to make the string of runs to have as many wins as he probably should. That is always a good battle and I was ready for anything.”

Hines is now one win shy of tying his career-best for wins in a season at six.

Krawiec, meanwhile, advanced to his fifth final of the year, coming up short in all of them. He defeated Michael Ray, John Hall and Scotty Pollacheck on Sunday.

“Racing each other has brought out the best in both of us,” a confident Hines said. “That is why we’ve been able to have as many wins as we have had. We have pushed each other that much harder to make sure our motorcycles are strong and that we are learning from one another and we don’t get complacent. Never do we say, ‘it ran this fast, let’s leave it.’ We try to find the next evolution to make it go faster. Not one time did each motorcycle go down the track with the same tuneup from run to run.”

While the team has run away with the Pro Stock Motorcycle class for much of the year, the Vance & Hines bunch will face a new challenge when the class rejoins the tour in Denver in mid-July.

“We are planning on rebodying these motorcycles for Denver and bring out our new bodywork,” Hines said. “We have a couple of hard weeks ahead of us, but we will get it done and get out and do some testing and roll into Bandimere ready to go.” Larry Crum

SATURDAY NOTEBOOK - NORWALK

TOP FUEL

HANGING ON - Brittany Force’s 3.712-second pass at 328.38 mph from Friday night held up after two more sessions on Saturday, placing the Advance Auto Parts dragster first on the ladder for the fourth time this season and the 14th time of her career.

While Force’s four green hats are certainly impressive, most of those occurred during the early part of the season. Entering into this race, the fourth of four-straight races on the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series tour, Force’s previous three qualifying positions were 15th, 9th and 7th.

But a testing session following Bristol has led to a big turnaround in a short amount of time as Force rocketed to the top Saturday at Summit Motorsports Park.

“We had an early day at Bristol and lost round one, so this Advance Auto Parts team made the decision to stay behind and test,” Force said. “We spent all day Monday testing and made four half-track passes to figure this car out and I feel like we’re in a better position now. David Grubnic and Mac Savage, they’re positive after that test session we had. All my guys are feeling good so that gives me confidence going forward.”

Force will face Lex Joon in round one.

Mike Salinas

PIT WARS - You want a rivalry in Top Fuel?

Now you’ve got one.

Rivalries have been a big part of the sport of drag racing dating back to the early years of the sport. From legendary drivers such as Garlits and Muldowney and Prudhomme and McEwen, to legendary teams such as JFR and DSR, rivalries make the sport go around.

But the newest rivalry in the sport of drag racing doesn’t involve any drivers. It doesn’t even involve any big, powerful race teams. This rivalry exists behind the scenes. It exists back at the race shop with the race car in pieces. It exists in the pits as the drivers are busy signing autographs and supporting their sponsors. It exists in the moments before the car is fired in the staging lanes.

It is the battle of the crews.

Mike Salinas and Steve Torrence have taken the Top Fuel world by storm in 2019, winning seven of the season’s first 11 races and doing it without the support of a big race team. They don’t have any major marketing partners. They don’t even have teammates. They do it all by themselves thanks to the support of game-changing crews and crew chiefs that have taken these two independent teams to the pinnacle of the sports biggest class without all of the bells and whistles that make up the big teams.

“You want a rivalry? The rivalry is our crew against their crew,” Salinas said. “I am going to make up some shirts that say ‘pit wars’ because that is what it really is. Everybody on this team, if they do great, nobody notices. But anytime they do bad, everybody is on them. My guys, I think they are the best in the business. I really do. This year you are going to find out, at the end of the year, who is the best.

Steve Torrence

“We have all the parts and pieces and all of the other stuff that makes a team work, that is not a problem. It all comes down to this team. These guys, they are on it. It is going to be really cool to run with these guys for a championship. We will get to the end and whatever happens, happens. But to be able to run with these guys on these bigger teams, that is the cool part.”

So what is the rivalry? It is Alan Johnson versus Richard Hogan. It is Alan Husen versus Bobby Lagana. It is the men calling the shots and tuning the machines of Salinas and Torrence that are making all the difference. For Salinas, that is Johnson, who came on board with the Scrappers Racing team at the start of the year, and Husen. For Torrence, it is Hogan and Lagana that have been a part of his team for several years.

It is the new rivalry in the sport of drag racing, and those sitting in the stands don’t even get to see it take place.

“They have an amazing team over there and it all comes down to their crew against our crew,” Salinas said. “Believe me, when we turn a car around in 25 minutes and it is ready to go, that is a big deal. I get to see some pretty cool stuff. We had a motor problem one race and we had 13 minutes to get up there (to the starting line). Alan and the guys, they changed it in 17 minutes. We went up there, they didn’t even have to fire it up. They said we are good to go. We went up there and won the race. On the other side I am like, ‘is that cool or what?’ It is a different level than I have ever seen, but I think the guys are amazing. I think I have the best crew out there and I want to highlight the work these guys do.”

Of course, the biggest change the team has seen has been the addition of legendary tuner Alan Johnson, who left John Force Racing as the crew chief of Brittany Force to join the smaller Salinas team at the beginning of the year. Since that move, Salinas has driven to his first wins with the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, winning at Las Vegas back in April and Bristol last weekend, as well as topping the field as top qualifier three times already this season.

“That was a single car team over (at JFR) and if you look at what they were doing, they weren’t running like that until he came on board. I am not real smart, but I would say that would be probably 60 percent of it,” Salinas said. “Alan is over here now and we let him run the show. I let him do what he needs to do and if it is running bad, then you can say something. Until then, leave him alone. Don’t even talk to the man, you are better off.”

Thanks to that success, Salinas finds himself third in the Top Fuel championship standings despite missing a couple of races - by choice mind you. In a growing trend in the NHRA, some teams are choosing not to run the entire schedule and still having success. Salinas is currently third in the championship standings with three final round visits despite missing a pair of races, joining the likes of Billy Torrence, father of Steve Torrence, who has started only six of the 11 races, but is still in the thick of the championship hunt with a win and two finals.

“I think in the future, a lot of cars are going to go this route. Just wait until the economy changes, it is going to affect all of them,” Salinas said. “I am just trying to get ahead of it. The first one that started it is Billy Torrence. Look at Billy, he is a part-timer who comes in and gets the job done. You don’t have to worry about Steve Torrence, worry about Billy. Every time Billy comes to a race that car is in the final or he is first or second in qualifying and he is just messing around with this stuff. He is just having fun. Everybody here should be worried about that guy.

“My prediction this year, Billy Torrence will come and race a few more races, he will get into the Countdown, and he will run for the championship. And I think he is going to do very well.”

UP THE LADDER - The only Top Fuel driver to make a significant jump up the ladder on Saturday was Clay Millican who leapt from 10th all the way up to fourth in his final pass of the day. His 3.723-second pass at 325.22 mph was the only significant movement among most of the nitro classes as he gets a date with Doug Kalitta in round one.

 

TORRENCE BEFORE TORRENCE - There is no doubt, Steve Torrence is the best in the sport right now.

Having won 24 of the last 55 races on the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series tour in the Capco dragster, Torrence is the class of the Top Fuel field by far.

But before Torrence, that person was Antron Brown. And before Brown it was Tony Schumacher and so on and so forth. It just goes to show that at one moment you are on top of the world, and the next you are forgotten.

While not exactly forgotten, Brown has found himself an afterthought in the class after earning three championships in a five year span that saw him as the Torrence of the class well before there was a Torrence. Now Brown is left chasing down his old buddy as he tries to take the Matco Tools dragster back to the top after a few years playing catch up.

“When you look at a team like Steve Torrence, they have been together for a long, long time. That is what you build when you stay together for that long,” Brown said. “You build that type of bond and you start to gel. You grow together as a unit and when you get there, you just keep on getting better because you start communicating without even talking. You can just look and understand. We have some new guys on our team and you can see they are starting to get that same mindset and we are getting in that mode and I see great things coming for us.

“Our Matco Tools team, our main deal is to be competitive each and every year and we had a stronghold (on the class) where, we didn’t win all of the championships in a five year span, but we were a dominant team from 2009 all the way to 2017. We won a lot of races and right now our team is getting back to that. Sometimes you have to take a step back to go forward. We rode that wave for a very long time and now we kind of have to reinvent ourselves. We are right on the brink and about to make some great things happen.

“The Capco boys have set the bar, but the thing about the bar is that it is made to jump over. We are getting closer and closer every weekend.”

After sitting out of the championship battle one year ago, Brown is right back in the thick of things this year with two final rounds as he has climbed to fourth in the standings. He is confident that this team is not far from a turnaround as he seeks his first win since August.

And he is feeling especially good this weekend with a special design on the side of his Matco Tools dragster honoring 40 years for the company.

“We are celebrating all of the distributors that spent a lifetime with Matco,” Brown said. “Some of these people have been with the company 20, 30, 40 years and their names are on our race car honoring them. They support us and allow us to do what we do.”

TWO IN A ROW - Leah Pritchett equaled her best qualifying position of the year for the second race in a row Saturday in Norwalk, driving her DSR dragster to second on the charts. Her 3.714-second pass at 325.45 mph placed her just behind Brittany Force in a 1-2 for the women of the class. After losing from the second position last week in Bristol, Pritchett will look to avoid the same fate Sunday against Luigi Novelli.

 

TOP FUEL SANDWICH - While much of the talk this season in the Top Fuel category has been on the success of the single car teams such as Steve Torrence and Mike Salinas, forgotten have been some of the series regulars.

While not as flashy, Doug Kalitta is sandwiched between the two single-car teams in second in the championship standings with one win and is ready to turn the conversation back to some of the bigger teams such as his Kalitta Motorsports Mac Tools dragster

“The car has been running pretty good actually. The direction we are going in is good. We are just trying to be as consistent as we can,” Kalitta said. “That is one thing about drag racing, it doesn’t matter (the size of your team). Any of these cars on a Sunday can win, but we work really hard at it just like everybody. It is a big team effort, even if it is just a one-car team. Salinas still has Alan Johnson tuning that thing, so it is competitive out here and that is what we love about it really.”

Kalitta started the year off hot before cooling off during the races leading up to the current four-race swing. He lost two-straight first round matchups, but since entering this stretch has once again found his groove including a No. 1 qualifier and a semifinal run one week ago in Bristol. That has propelled Kalitta up to second, trailing only Torrence.

Kalitta also has a win in each of the past two seasons, something that not a lot of teams can say with the recent dominance of the Capco team.

“We’ve been fortunate to get a win. We got one last year and we’ve got one this year,” Kalitta said. “We are really hoping to get a couple more wins and then make sure we are ready for those last six for sure.”


FUNNY CAR

PICKING POCKETS - Ron Capps has a lot of wins. He has a lot of final rounds. But he does not possess many No. 1 qualifiers.

Focusing on Sundays much of his career with some of the most famous crew chiefs in the sport of drag racing, Capps has always placed precedent on winning that yellow hat on race day as opposed to the green hat in qualifying.

But anytime the NAPA Auto Parts team does pick up a green hat for being the quickest car entering race day, it is special. And Saturday was special for Capps.

Capps drove the NAPA Dodge Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat to the top spot Saturday using his 3.879-second pass at 329.18 mph from Friday night to pick up his first No. 1 of the season and the 23rd of his career.

“Don Schumacher has been out of the country for the last couple of races and we really wanted to show off for him,” Capps said. “Funny Car is so tough right now. You can count 10 cars that are a couple of runs away from standing in the winner’s circle, which makes this even more special because they were all pushing really hard to be No. 1 and we took it.

“Coming in here, (Rahn) Tobler has had a bump in his step and has been as confident as I’ve ever seen him. I don’t have a lot of No. 1s in my career, so when we do get a green hat it is a big deal to me.”

In addition to picking up the top qualifying position, Capps also continued his run of bonus points, picking up all but two during the four qualifying session in Norwalk with four solid passes down the track. And on Saturday, following a great pass by John Force just in front of him to place him low E.T. of the final session, Capps followed him down the track with an even better time, snatching the three bonus points for being quickest of the session.

“There is nothing better than to pick the pocket of John Force right in front of him,” Capps said. “I knew he went a 91 right in front of us, so when I went through the 1,000-foot mark I looked up and saw a 91, but didn’t know until I came around the corner that we had snatched the three points. That itself was pretty cool.”

Capps will face Bob Bode in round one as he seeks his third win of 2019.

ONE FOOT IN FRONT OF THE OTHER - A lot of drivers have rituals.

Some listen to a certain type of music. Some have to pack their own chutes or mix their own fuel. Some just don’t want to be bothered.

And then there are some that just have to beat on the car to make sure it is put together.

Matt Hagan has been racing for a long time, but one thing that has never changed is his pre-race rituals. He has to touch the car. He has to make sure it is going to keep him safe. And he has to put his race suit on left side first. If not, he is a mess inside the car.

“I think most everyone has a pre-race ritual. I put the left side (of my race suit) on all the same all the time. Left boot, left glove, left everything and then the right. I also like to walk around the car and even stand on the wheelie bar because I have seen guys leave it loose and ride a wheelie at the hit of the throttle,” Hagan said. “I grab the wing and shake it and pound on it a little bit. If something is loose, it can lead to a nasty wreck out there. It is the little things here and there, touching the car, making sure everything is good. And then I take a prayer before I get in the car.”

Of course, once he gets in the car, the rituals continue.

“I like to chew on my mouth piece and get up on the wheel,” Hagan said. “I really grind my mouthpiece. I’ve already gone through like three mouth pieces this season.”

Finally, after he is comfortable, he begins working his knee to really get ready for hitting that throttle and powering down the race track at more than 300 mph.

“I get in and hit the throttle and get a feel for it. I get my knee warmed up a little bit,” Hagan said. “My knee takes abuse. That pedal is solid and you are solid and your knee is the weak point. It is what takes all of the shock, so I get it warmed up. Then I pull up to the line and zone everything else out.”

Of course, that is in a perfect world. Sometimes there are distractions, such as an odd burnout or an off-sounding car or even the changes of running in the four-wide races that can throw that routine off. That is when all bets are off.

“You’ve had so many runs, you just adapt and try not to freak out in there when your routine gets thrown off,” Hagan said. “If something changes or you forget this or that, you just kind of roll with it. Hell, I left my visor up the other day. It was the four-wide and I am thinking about which lane I am in and what bulb I am looking at versus thinking about going through your routine. I left my visor up and halfway down through there I was like, ‘why is it so loud? I better close that.’ It is just dumb stuff sometimes, you just have to adjust.”

POWERFUL PAUL - Paul Lee has had one of the best weekends of his NHRA career already this weekend and continued that on Saturday, qualifying third with a 3.914 at 326.08 mph. He will look to continue that trend when he faces Dale Creasy Jr. in round one on Sunday.

 

BIG WIN, BIG MO - Some say it doesn’t exist. Others live by it.

Either way, there is no denying that Bob Tasca has a little momentum on his side.

Tasca won the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol Dragway one week ago, his first NHRA Wally since 2012. It was a huge moment for the veteran racer and an even bigger moment for his crew and supporters as Tasca was able to validate his return to the sport alongside longtime partner Ford.

Tasca got the win in a dominant showing, recording wins over Jim Campbell, Robert Hight, Ron Capps and John Force. Among those names are the first, second and fourth place cars in the championship standings, along with winners of six races this season.

“We were really excited about the win, obviously, but even more excited about how we won it,” Tasca said. “The car just ran dominant every round and we flat out outran everyone that we raced. That gives me as a driver a whole lot of confidence and it gives the team a lot of confidence.”

Behind the scenes, Tasca entered the current four-race stretch having made wholesale changes, unhappy with the direction the team was going. Entering Bristol, Tasca was 10th in the championship standings in the Ford Motorcraft/Quick Lane Mustang, having just six round wins all season and only one advance out of the second round.

But in Bristol, following a slew of changes brought about by Tasca, the team was able to show the true potential of this car as he put together his best run since reaching the final at Bristol in 2018.

“We made a lot of changes going into Richmond. Wholesale changes with the team and the setup,” Tasca said. “Obviously, some people thought I was crazy, but I don’t think they think I am crazy anymore.

“Sometimes you just have to make a gut call. It is not just racing, but in sports. I made a gut call on what I wanted to do. I’ve done it in the past and it hasn’t worked and I am really happy that it worked this go around. Ultimately, you can feed that injector $100 bills and it doesn’t mean a thing. It is about people and chemistry and getting the right group together and every once in a while you can catch lightning in a bottle. I am very optimistic that we have done just that.”

Following the win, Tasca said the week heading into Norwalk is the first time all year that he has left the car alone and entered the event feeling good about where he is. Now he is ready to add more wins and solidify his position in the Countdown to the Championship.

“This is the first race of the last four that we have changed nothing,” Tasca said. “We have a great chemistry in the trailer and this team just wants to keep riding this momentum. There is nothing like winning. That is why we are out here. That is the only reason I am out here is to win and to compete for a championship.

“Granted it is one win, you have to keep it in perspective, but it was a big win. And we are going to take that win and hopefully expand on it here in Norwalk and beyond.”

HOT TUB TIME MACHINE - What a difference a year can make.

One year ago Blake Alexander was celebrating his first career NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series victory right here at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals, defeating Terry McMillen in the Top Fuel final.

It was the first of two race wins and two total final round visits for the young driver during a dream season for the part-timer. And it all started right here at Norwalk.

Fast forward to 2019 and Alexander is back at the northern Ohio track, but this time he is in a Funny Car driving for his own race team just trying to find his footing in the class.

“We made the move to do this in the offseason and it has been going. We haven’t seen the exact results that we wanted, but it is coming around,” Alexander said. “The car makes really good runs and now we are trying to repeat it and get it to the point where we can do it consistently. The car sat for a year so we had some electrical issues and other things that were wrong with it that the only way we could identify was coming out here and doing this.”

While this season has been a challenge for Alexander behind the wheel of the Pronto Auto Parts Ford Mustang, he admits that the confidence he gained by winning this race last year has played a big role in proving to himself that he can be successful in just about any class.

“It was special. There was a lot of effort put into it individually that weekend from each person on the team and all of the years before that I have been racing,” Alexander said. “It was special to get that done. It was something I didn’t know would ever happen, but now that it did I want to keep doing it.”

But in a Funny Car? Alexander said he simply wanted a new challenge and knew that Funny Car was the ultimate challenge in the sport of drag racing.

“I had driven them before and they are just more fun to drive and more challenging,” Alexander said. “The whole process of it is something I enjoy more than Top Fuel. It is a lot harder than Top Fuel from top to bottom. There are more fully funded teams. There are more teams that go to all of the races and teams that have manufacturer support and solid sponsorships. We can run with them, we just have to repeat it and do it over and over again so we are working on that right now.

“Dan (Wilkerson) is getting more confident with the tuneup. He is getting confident in making changes and I’m learning more and more about the car. We have a good car right now and we want to keep it going the rest of the year. (This weekend) it ran 281 (miles-per-hour) to the eighth-mile which is what all of the other guys are doing out here and the motor looked fine. That is the essential part, being able to run fast and everything looking good after.”

So, after seeing so much success in a dragster one year ago before making the switch to Funny Car, if he could hop in a time machine and change anything between then and now, would he? Not a chance.

“Not really,” Alexander said. “There wasn’t much hesitation at all. I knew what I wanted to do and I wanted to call the shots and do everything the way I wanted to do it and the only want to do that was by owning the team myself.”

NEXT UP - Don Schumacher Racing has been really successful at Summit Motorsports Park.

Winners of the last four in Funny Car at the northern Ohio track, there is no reason to believe that one or more of the DSR cars will be right in the thick of things on Sunday seeking that race win. And of those four-straight race wins, three drivers have been responsible for those victories. The only problem? There are four DSR Funny Car drivers.

Tommy Johnson Jr. has been the odd man out at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals among the DSR drivers, as Jack Beckman has won twice (2017, 2015) and Matt Hagan (2018) and Ron Capps (2016) have won one apiece. But this year, Johnson has been the best of that quartet overall, sitting third in the championship standings, and Johnson hopes he can join his teammates with his own win to make it five-in-a-row in Norwalk.

“There are certain tracks that I would like to get one at and this is one of them,” Johnson said. “It seems like I win at the same tracks all of the time. It is weird. I would like to break out and get a fresh one soon. I would like to get one I don’t have. I have plenty of multiple trophies from the same tracks, but Norwalk is one I would like to have. I’ve come here, even back years and years ago, and one of these days I’d like to get one.”

Among the tracks that Johnson has had multiple wins and finals includes Pomona, Chicago, Las Vegas and Bristol. So what makes one track suit a driver more than another? If Johnson knew that, he would have a lot more wins.

“If I knew I would take it to all of them,” Johnson said. “I don’t know. It is hard to put your finger on it. It seems like you go there and you feel confident when you get there. Tracks I go to that I haven’t won at I still feel confident, but it just works at some and not others so I don’t know what it is. I think some of it is it fits the crew chief and his style or the driving style of the driver. Every track is the same, but it is also completely different. The grandstands might be behind the tree or a bit of shade here and have different sightlines. It is the little nuances that makes it easier or more difficult.”

Johnson trails only Robert Hight and John Force in the Countdown to the Championship standings in Funny Car, having won once at Chicago three weeks ago and adding another final at Las Vegas. He’s actually off to one of the best starts of his career and hopes he can continue that momentum this weekend.

“We are pretty competitive this year. Normally we are a slow starter and we start to come on midseason and toward the end of the year and I am really happy with how well we have done already this year,” Johnson said. “I hope we can continue that and add our previous back-halfs to this front half of the season.”

UNFAMILIAR TERRITORY - Robert Hight, who has dominated much of the season in the Funny Car category, especially on Saturday’s with six No. 1 qualifiers, had his worst qualifying effort of the year on Saturday. Hight, who has never won at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals, qualified 10th with a 3.938 at 297.81 mph and will face J.R. Todd in a tough first round matchup.

 


PRO STOCK

IT’S A TIE - On Friday night, Deric Kramer and Matt Hartford produced identical, side-by-side passes of 6.559 seconds.

It was a thrilling race to determine the provisional top qualifier to start off the weekend as Kramer was awarded the position thanks to a faster pass of 210.18 mph to Hartford’s 209.59 mph. But as drivers failed to better their times on Saturday, that incredible race proved the difference in a green hat as Kramer held on for his first top qualifier award of the season and the fourth of his career.

“The pass was the best of the session, but it probably could have been a little bit better,” Kramer said. “We looked at every run we made and all of them could have been a little bit better. But it worked out for us today. Tomorrow we have a chance to go a couple of rounds and possibly more.”

And what a difference a year can make.

Last year Kramer qualified 12th after a rain-shortened weekend left the Pro Stock cars with only a single hit at the track and was knocked out in the first round by Vincent Nobile. Now he will look to add a few rounds in 2019.

“I’m super excited,” Kramer said. “Last year we were knocked out first round and I have already doubled my number of runs here. With the heat tomorrow, it plays into our wheelhouse. This is just a precursor hopefully to what comes tomorrow.”

Kramer will face Shane Tucker in round one on Sunday.

WRONG WAY - After qualifying in the top three at four of the first five races of the year, Butner hasn’t qualified better than eighth in the last two. Butner continued his slide in the wrong direction Saturday in Norwalk as he sits 10th on the ladder with a 6.574-second pass at 210.14 mph.

 

QUICK CHANGE - On most race weekends, Erica Enders stays pretty busy.

While most drivers are busy with one car, Enders typically pulls double duty, jumping between her Elite Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro Pro Stock machine and a turbocharged Elite Motorsports Camaro on the Pro Modified tour.

While the two cars certainly look similar, the similarities end there as one is hell on wheels and the other is chaos in the cockpit. And, most race days, she has to jump between the two cars, sometimes with only a few moments to decompress between runs.

“With the two cars I am going from letting go of a button, trying not to crash and then hitting the parachute to a car that keeps you busy in the cockpit. It is very different,” Enders said. “There is so much more required in the cockpit of a Pro Stock car than a Pro Mod car. Yes, it is faster. It has more horsepower and is crazier. But the procedure in the Pro Stock car is challenging and that is what intrigues me so much about the class. A lot of the weight is on the driver’s shoulders and I enjoy that aspect of it. It takes a run or two to get back in the groove of things and I feel like driving the Pro Mod car has actually made me a better Pro Stock driver because, not that I took it for granted, but when I get back in this car I am paying so much more attention to what is going on because I don’t want to mess up.

“I’ve driven so much better this year than I did last year. Elapsed times and reaction times have nothing to do with that, but driving wise, hitting my shifts and doing my job accurately in the car, I’ve been better. I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to drive in Pro Mod. Pro Stock is my jam and I want to be the absolute best at that.”

At most races, Enders has just moments between making a pass in her Pro Modified machine and getting back to the line to run her Pro Stock Camaro. That gap in between typically includes a quick change of firesuits and other habits that help Enders be successful between the two classes.

“In Pro Stock you are required to have a 15-pound firesuit and in Pro Mod it is a 20. I guess it is more protective because it is a crazier car. You absolutely could wear the 20 in the Pro Stock car and not have to change, but it is so much bigger and you are less able to move freely in the car,” Enders said. “I like to change because, in the Pro Stock car, we leave with a clutch and you want to be as comfortable as possible.

“Between runs I also have what I call a neuro program. I go through and visualize the run and the car and sometimes I don’t have a lot of time between runs so once I get out of the Pro Mod car and into my Pro Stock, I have a quick second to sit there and mentally go through some runs. I’ll even go as far as putting my foot on the clutch and my hand on the shifter and making run after run in my mind. If you can’t make runs on the track, you have to at least make them in your mind and that is what I try to focus on.”

And so far, it seems to be working out.

Enders is third in the Pro Stock championship standings with one final coming two weeks ago in Chicago. She has also had success in her Pro Mod machine, racing to a new speed record in the class this weekend at 261.11 mph in her final round of qualifying Saturday in Norwalk.

THERE YOU GO - So far this year, Chris McGaha’s best qualifying run has been eighth best way back in March at the Gatornationals. On Saturday, McGaha put his Harlow Sammons Chevrolet Camaro third on the qualifying ladder with a 6.560-second pass at 211.00 mph.

 

SHOWDOWN - In the Pro Stock class, it is all about KB Racing and Elite Motorsports.

Drivers sporting a powerplant from one of those two teams make up the top nine positions in the Pro Stock championship standings, with KB Racing-powered Bo Butner holding off a pair of Elite-powered Camaros.

While some like to sum up the class as a battle between those two super teams, others inside the class, including those part of either of the two camps, are quick to point out that it is not as simple as Elite vs. KB.

“I think when you look at Elite versus KB there is one way to look at that and that is Jeg (Coughlin) and Erica (Enders) against Greg (Anderson) and Jason (Line). And I guess you could throw Bo (Butner) in there. But when it comes to the different teams out here, someone like myself or Deric Kramer, we run our cars independently from the ‘factory teams,’” said Pro Stock competitor Matt Hartford. “The setups in my car are nothing like what is in Erica’s car or Jeg’s car and the same thing goes for Kramer and they do a great job and they are an independent team as well.

“We run completely independent. That doesn’t mean there is not a transfer of technology back and forth. Our teams are constantly talking, but if you were to take our car and set it into their camp they would look at it and say, ‘what the hell are these guys doing’ and vice versa. Just because someone else is doing something, that doesn’t mean it will work for you. You have to work on your own combination and that is what we do.”

Hartford recently became a customer of Elite Motorsports, joining the factory drivers of Jeg Coughlin and Erica Enders, as well as fellow customers such as Rodger Brogdon and Alex Laughlin. Since joining the Elite team, at least in power, Hartford earned his first career win last season and has visited two additional finals this year as he sits sixth in the championship standings.

“We’ve had a very good year. We have a lot of really good people around us. My crew does a phenomenal job and all of my partners, they do everything that they can to allow a small team like myself to be out here and be competitive,” Hartford said. “Obviously Elite provides us with really good power, but it is not like our crew and our team haven’t been around doing this for a while. There are 90 million different ways to skin a cat and we are just doing it our way and they are doing it their way, as are Greg and Jason and (Chris) McGaha and Kramer. We all run within thousands of a second.”

While some may view the two large teams gobbling up drivers as a negative, for the class as a whole, it has taken Pro Stock, at least competitively, to new heights and, at least to Hartford, created one of the best environments for new drivers to enter the class than ever before.

“If you are a Top Sportsman guy and you want to come out here and run Pro Stock you can lease an engine from one of the several teams that lease you an engine and you can setup your own car and you can run with these guys,” Hartford said. “I think that is a huge positive in the sport. Now is the best time in the history of the sport to come race.”

ELITE MATCHUP - It will be an all-Elite Motorsports matchup on Sunday as teammates Jeg Coughlin and Erica Enders will meet up in round one. Coughlin qualified eighth with a 6.572 at 209.92 mph, just ahead of Enders’ 6.573 at 207.18 mph.


PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE

NO ICE CREAM FOR YOU - Summit Motorsports Park is the home of the $1 ice cream.

It is one of the most popular promotions in all of sports as fans come and enjoy a giant scoop of ice cream for only a single buck. And that carries over to the drivers as well.

In addition to taking home a Wally at the end of the day, each winner at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals gets to take home a special ice cream scoop trophy, a unique item to add to any collection.

While most fans and racers love coming to the northern Ohio track for that unique atmosphere, and of course the ice cream, for others, it can be a bit of a bummer.

Take for instance Eddie Krawiec. The Pro Stock Motorcycle rider has a total of three ice cream scoops in his collection, including winner here last year, but it isn’t as good as it might sound. You see for Krawiec, he is lactose intolerant. Truly a bummer at a track known for its ice cream.

“Yeah, I’m lactose intolerant so I don’t get to enjoy the ice cream that often,” Krawiec said.

That didn’t stop Krawiec from taking one step closer to his fourth career Norwalk win on Saturday as the rider of the Vance & Hines Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson drove his bike to his third No. 1 qualifier of the season and the 46th of his career.

Kraweic’s 6.843-second pass at 197.45 mph held off Matt Smith who had a 6.848 at 198.90 mph to qualify second.

“I have a great motorcycle right now. I am glad it made a good, clean run,” Kraweic said. “It is really important to have a good motorcycle on Saturday because you know what to expect on Sunday. Tomorrow it is going to be up 10 to 12 degrees which will make for an interesting race.

“It is nice to have a green hat today, but you want to have that yellow hat tomorrow.”

Krawiec will face Michael Ray in round one on Sunday.

COME TO THE DARK SIDE - It is a tale as old as time.

Good guy goes through life doing good, is tempted by a wicked figure or an evil power, and is faced with a dilemma - stay on the path of good or stray to the dark side? You see it in everything from Greek mythology with the Sirens who lure sailors to their deaths, to Star Wars with the temptation of Luke Skywalker by his father Darth Vader.

Sometimes the good guys prevail and avoid the temptation. Other times they don’t.

That is exactly the situation that Pro Stock Motorcycle driver Angelle Sampey faced last year. Tempted from her traditional world battling the superpowers of the sport, she joined that very same superpower, giving in and joining forces with the boys at Harley-Davidson Screamin’ Eagle Vance & Hines to form a three-bike team with the single most dominant team in the two-wheel category over the past several years.

“I did! I joined the dark side,” Sampey said with a laugh. “I made jokes with them for the first couple of months that I would look down and see myself in a Harley-Davidson uniform and I felt like I needed to put garlic around my neck or something. It was burning me.

“It was crazy because it felt so wrong at first, but it felt so right at the same time. Now it feels like nothing but right. The only thing I feel now is regret that I didn’t do this sooner. I really wish I would have pursued this ride years ago.”

With 42 wins to her credit, Sampey is the most successful female competitor in motorsports, and has undoubtedly been one of the fiercest rivals of the Harley-Davidson Vance & Hines crew over the years. Now, Sampey is featured as a showcase third rider on the Harley-Davidson Street Rod Pro Stock bike.

“I thought for sure I was going to come over here and they would take me onboard and give me a decent motorcycle, but I figured it would just be, ‘here is your motorcycle and leave us alone,’” Sampey said. “I didn’t believe that they would be so in-tune to what I need, what I want with the bike and work so hard to make it perfect for me. This is a genuine statement, they really are working on my motorcycle and my tuning and my driving as if I am the only one on the team. It is pretty amazing how they have treated me.

“We still have that little rivalry within ourselves, but they have been great. Of course, there are other times I come back to the trailer and I feel like I did better and they continue to tell me all of the things I did wrong. I’m like, ‘come on guys!’ It is good because they are pushing me really hard to be better. They have really made me feel welcome and like I am truly a part of a three-bike team, not just a little sideshow.”

Sampey, who made her professional debut in 1996 and collected three-straight championships from 2000-2002, has as much experience as anyone in the class, but admitted that the very first time she hopped on a Harley, she felt like she had started completely over in her career.

“I never thought I was going to have this much trouble. I knew it was going to be a little different, but I never dreamed it would be this different. I literally felt like I had just started racing,” Sampey said. “I don’t even remember the first couple of passes on the bike. I was so scared and so not ready for it. The bike was so much ahead of me I couldn’t keep up in my brain. My whole first test session in Phoenix was a complete blur. I really thought it wasn’t going to be that big of a deal, but it is a totally different motorcycle.

“What I thought was going to be the big issue actually wasn’t. It was the torque and how much power you have when you leave each gear. What I was used to before was it pulling really hard in first and second and a little bit in third, but this motorcycle pulls every gear as if it is first gear. I am not feeling it as much now, but it is still a learning curve each pass.”

So far in 2019, that learning curve has produced a trio of round wins and a couple of solid qualifying runs, but there is still a lot of work to be done. Still, with the Vance & Hines team behind her, Sampey is feeling as confident as ever as she tries to get back to the old days as a force to be reckoned with on the tour as she seeks her first win since 2016.

“It has just been seat time every single time down the track,” Sampey said. “I am a little more comfortable with something else and we have changed a lot of things on the motorcycle to suit me better and each time it is getting better.”

BIG SWING - Scott Pollacheck’s previous best qualifying position this season was 10th. He failed to qualify in Las Vegas and he doesn’t have a round win yet this year. But on Saturday, he shook off all of that and qualified in fifth with a 6.881-second pass at 194.04 mph, by far his best of the year.

 

TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN, BOTTOM OF THE VALLEY - Matt Smith has seen the highest of highs and the lowest of lows during his illustrious racing career.

He has ridden the highs of two championships in 2007 and 2013 and nearly two dozen race wins, to the lows of missing races and skipping runs due to lack of funding. Just a couple of years ago, Smith wasn’t even sure if he would be able to continue racing with no money and no help, leaving the team in flux and unsure of its future.

But then he received some help. A new sponsor in Denso came onboard. And then he started receiving a bit of help from other race teams such as Elite Motorsports. And then the results on the track started to improve. A top qualifier here, a race win there. He even set the new NHRA record for speed in the class at 201.76 mph. And then, when it mattered most, it all came together in the form of a third championship last year.

“We’ve been to some pretty low points. Times where we didn’t have a sponsor and we didn’t know if we were going to get to race and had to sit runs out at different races to save money and save parts,” Smith said. “But that has changed. We’ve got a good sponsor right now. Do we need more help? Yes, we definitely need more to compete with the Harley team out here. They have four times more budget than what we have, but the biggest thing is we are running right there with them and we are making it work. To be successful, you need money. Money drives the sport. But where we are right now, I am very happy.”

And it is that success against the Harley-Davidson team that Smith is most proud of.

Despite a massive gap in funding, technology and team support, Smith has been able to run alongside the likes of Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec, even beating them much of last year and edging them both to claim his third PSM title.

“We are pretty proud of that. It is just me and Angie (Smith) in the shop working. We take care of all of our own motors, Elite helps with the cylinders for us, but that is it. Everything else we do in house,” Smith said. “When you go up against that black trailer down there, that team has 30 employees in their shop and all the CNC machines in the world and to beat them is pretty special to us. We love what we are doing and we are going to keep doing it as long as we can.”

Coming off that championship-winning season, Smith has backed that up with a win and two final rounds in 2019, placing him fourth in points behind the Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson duo of Hines and Krawiec, as well as Hector Arana Jr. But at this time last year, he was seventh in the standings and went on to win the championship.

Can he find that mojo as he enters the second half of the year just like last year? He thinks so.

“We are running good. We’ve got a bunch of motors and we are not hurting parts. We are just very consercative right now,” Smith said. “We are not trying to push our stuff really hard because we don’t want to get penalized by NHRA. We are trying to play the smart role right now and just not run really, really fast and save our stuff for the Countdown.”

 

FRIDAY NOTEBOOK - NORWALK
 

TOP FUEL

THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE HOME, OR NORWALK - On a small strip of asphalt somewhere in the pits at Summit Motorsports Park, there sits a spot that is very familiar to NHRA Top Fuel veteran Clay Millican.

In fact, Millican claims that small piece of land as his own. And, even though he is not parked in that spot this weekend, he still likes to visit it from time to time and be reminded of just how far he has come in the sport.

“I certainly roll into this place with confidence,” Millican said. “I know where my parking spot is, even though we are not in it right now. On the far side of the race track is a slab of concrete that is mine.”

While the NHRA has been coming to the fan-favorite track in northern Ohio since 2007, Millican’s history at the Bill Bader-owned facility goes back much, much further. Long before the NHRA ever thought of placing one of its prestigious national events at the track, Millican was turning laps and winning in weekly races and IHRA national events dating back to the early 90s.

In fact, Millican’s very first final round in the sport of drag racing occurred right here many, many years ago.

“Not only did I win Top Fuel races here, my very first IHRA final ever I raced Anthony Bertozzi in the final round of Modified and he kicked my butt like he did everybody else,” Millican said. “This place feels good. It is like grabbing a pair of shoes you are used to or going to a buddies house that you are used to. It is just a great place to race.”

Of course, Millican’s walk down memory lane at Norwalk didn’t start off the best this weekend.

During his first qualifying session Friday at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals, Millican’s car failed to fire and they were forced to do the walk of shame back to the pits, pushing the car back through the staging lanes. Even worse, the issue was driver error, as Millican accidentally flipped a safety shutoff switch that wouldn’t allow the car to fire.

“No gripes or complaints, but there are just so many safety devices on these things,” Millican said with a laugh. “To be honest, I am not sure exactly what happened other than we came back here and did a reset and it started right up. There are a lot of electronic parts on these cars, parts that exceed my brain power which is why I just drive.”

Of course, this isn’t the first time this has happened. Millican recalled a hot day in St. Louis several years ago where he did something similar, but a lot has changed in these cars since then. And, while he is thankful for the added safety, he admitted that it has also created a lot more things that could go wrong.

“There are way more safety devices that can cause problems, but they are much appreciated when you need them,” Millican said.

Millican rebounded from his first-round mishap with a ninth place run in session two Friday night, giving the team a solid baseline, but leaving room to improve.

Now Millican will shift his focus to turning around a weekend that got off to a sour start and continue moving in the right direction during a year that has been filled with highs and lows.

“It is pretty amazing where we are considering where we started from Pomona at the end of last year to right now,” said Millican, who has two final rounds this season and sits sixth in points after starting over with a new crew entering the season. “We are probably in better shape than I expected. The team came together pretty dang quick. When you look at it, the third race of the year we were in a final round. It was a mad dash when you have to replace every guy. It certainly took some adjustments because you bring in guys that have some experience and some with zero experience and try to get everybody caught up to the pace that it takes to turn these cars around out here. I would say we are in great shape considering what we had to start with.”

IT TAKES A VILLAGE - As they say about raising a family, it takes a village.

The same could be said for putting together a competitive race team. It all starts with a car and a car owner. And then you need a driver and a crew chief. Then a crew and, for the bigger teams, a supporting staff that includes hospitality, marketing, and operations.

For most teams, that collection of bodies is a constant, a tight-knit group of individuals that run together over an entire calendar year and, sometimes if you are lucky, multiple seasons. But then there are situations like the one young driver Austin Prock has found himself in.

Already at the bottom end of a steep learning curve as a rookie racer in NHRA’s Top Fuel class, Prock has had the added misfortune of going through multiple crews and crew chiefs during his young career. It hasn’t been easy, but Prock has learned to swing with the punches and looks forward to the new challenge, especially now with crew chief Mike Green and Ronnie Thompson coming on board.

“We put together a whole new team and that is always a struggle. Even if you keep the same crew chief, it is tough. What those guys do every weekend is everything. They look at the data, the car has to be put together the same and, unfortunately, we have had a number of different people work on this thing,” Prock said. “It is in the mid-30s as far as the number of different crew members that we have had working on this thing. That was a bit of a learning curve. But we got Mike Green over here now and he’s doing a great job turning this thing around. If you look at the incrementals, our 60-foot and 330-foot times are really competitive. So we are right there. We just have to keep picking at it and I have to keep doing my job and we will go some rounds.”

Already with a semifinal finish at the Heartland Nationals and a quad of second-round finishes, the third-generation driver has already shown that behind the wheel of his Montana Brand/Rocky Mountain Twist dragster, he’s not to be taken lightly.

“So many things have changed. We have almost restarted the year,” Prock said. “I think we are doing fine for our circumstances. Obviously we want to win, but it is not going to happen overnight. (Steve) Torrence and these guys have been doing it for 10 years, so you can want to win and maybe expect to win, but it is not easy. If it were easy everyone would do it.

“We are just going to keep picking at it. We have all of the right equipment and the right people behind us. We are going to win, it is just going to take some time to put eight good runs together in a weekend.”

While Prock is still fine-tuning his driving skills as he pursues the Auto Club Road to the Future Award, NHRA’s version of Rookie of the Year, Prock is already looking ahead at what is to come down the road. And that vision doesn’t necessarily include a dragster.

Prock added a Funny Car license to his repertoire at this race one year ago.

“I want to drive a Funny Car eventually. I love driving this dragster, but I think it would be cool to get that opportunity,” Prock said. “I would like to drive a Funny Car and win a championship. If I can win a championship in both of these things it would be pretty awesome."

GIRL POWER- Brittany Force and Leah Pritchett were the top two qualifiers in Top Fuel Friday night at Summit Motorsports Park, with Force driving her Advance Auto Parts dragster to the top of the charts in session two with a 3.712-second pass at 328.38 mph. Pritchett fell in line just behind the John Force Racing driver with her own stellar 3.714 at 325.45 mph.

 

MORE ACCOLADES FOR TORRENCE – Steve Torrence has been the man to beat on the track this season.

With five wins, seven finals and a dominant 29-6 round win-loss record, the NHRA Top Fuel points leader has been the toast of the Top Fuel class this season. But all of that has occurred on the track.

Now Torrence will look to add another accolade to his resume as he attempts to make some noise off the track as well.

Torrence was recently nominated for an ESPN Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly (ESPY) award earlier this week in the category of Best Driver alongside the likes of Formula 1 racer Lewis Hamilton, NASCAR star Kyle Busch and IndyCar champion Scott Dixon. Torrence, who has won a total of 24 of the last 55 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series events in the Capco Contractors Top Fuel dragster, will try to be the first drag racer to win the award.

“I am honored to represent the NHRA and drag racing as a Best Driver ESPY nominee,” Torrence said. “Especially since I’m in such select company with Formula 1, IndyCar and NASCAR drivers. It’s just a testament to the dedication and hard work of the Capco boys who put a great car under me every week.”

With the nomination, Torrence becomes the 10th NHRA competitor to be nominated for the prestigious award and the 19th overall nomination for a drag racer. He joins a list that includes John Force, Tony Schumacher, Erica Enders, Greg Anderson, Tony Pedregon, Melanie Troxel, Del Worsham, Ron Capps and Brittany Force. John Force is the most recognized drag racer with six prior nominations.

In total, 17 NASCAR drivers have taken home the award since it was first introduced in 1993, headlined by Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon with four wins apiece. Formula 1 has produced three ESPY winners in the Best Driver category, while IndyCar and CART have both seen two winners apiece.

The 2019 ESPY awards will take place on Wednesday, July 10 at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles.

NEVER SAY QUIT – When Richie Crampton crossed the stripe ahead of Clay Millican at the historic Gatornationals in Gainesville earlier this year, things looked like they were heading up for the DHL Top Fuel team.

Since those four Sunday round wins back in March, however, Crampton has seen only three additional round wins the rest of the way, leaving the team perplexed, but not defeated, entering the fourth race of a four-race stretch this weekend in Norwalk.

“We have been battling hard the past three races and really all season,” Crampton said. “What I love about this DHL Top Fuel dragster is there is no quit over here. Connie (Kalitta) is an amazing leader and I am honored to be racing his Top Fuel dragster. We are losing some close races, but I think we are going to put that behind us and continue to focus on getting better every run.”

After positioning himself in the top five in the standings following that victory, Crampton has fallen to eighth, less than 50 points ahead of the cutoff. Some of that struggle has been because of bad luck, others because of race day gambles, but Crampton said he would rather take a shot than to sit back and not try at all.

“There are a lot of positives we are taking from the previous races. We had a great car in Topeka and last weekend in Bristol we got aggressive in the first round and it didn’t work out,” Crampton said. “I would rather be too aggressive than the opposite for sure.”

While it might get worse before it gets better, Crampton says he has some tracks coming up on the schedule that is very excited to return to and hopes to be able to find a little momentum to close out the year and hopefully securing a spot in the postseason after missing the Countdown to the Championship in 2018.

“Beyond this weekend, I am looking forward to the races at the end of the regular season,” Crampton said. “I have had success at a number of them so that gives us a lot of confidence. Our plan for this race in Norwalk is to continue to run well in qualifying and have a long day on Sunday and then really attack the rest of the schedule.”

 

FUNNY CAR
 

AWESOME - What a session.

A swing in temperature and a fast cooling track led to a thrilling session of Funny Car qualifying Friday evening that ended with DSR driver Ron Capps sitting atop the field.

Capps was second quickest in his first pass of the event, but watched as that time dropped him outside the top half of the field before pulling to the line alongside Jack Beckman in the final pairing of the evening.

There Capps laid down a great run, racing to a 3.879-second pass at 329.18 mph to place him in the provisional top spot after two of four sessions at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals.

“Great conditions and a great track. (Crew chief) Rahn Tobler came back more times than he ever has previously. (John) Force was early and we saw that 88 come up and he went to work,” Capps said. “He put the spoiler down and did a few things that were a little bit outside of his box. It was neat knowing that we were either going to go to the pole or smoke the tires.

“I made that run thinking it was going to be an ok run and they came on the radio and told me what it was. We weren’t even in the top half of the field when we ran. It was a really fun session.”

If his time holds it will be Capps’ first No. 1 qualifier of the season.

FIRST GO AT THE BIG SHOW – There is a first time for everything in life.

Your first steps. Your first kiss. Your first time pulling up to the starting line in front of thousands of people in a 10,000 horsepower nitro-powered Funny Car with all of your friends and family looking on.

You know, the little moments in life.

For Mike McIntire Jr., the reality of his very first NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series start is already starting to hit home. On Friday, McIntire will make his first pass in a big show Funny Car after a few years on the nostalgia flopper scene at his home track at Summit Motorsports Park with one of the largest crowds of the year – and dozens of his friends and family – rooting him on. It will be a surreal moment for the 35-year-old second-generation racer from Chesterfield, Ohio, but one he is ready to face head-on.

“I have always wanted to race at this level. I just wasn’t sure if we would ever get there,” McIntire said. “I really have to thank my dad for all of this. It’s a big financial undertaking and at the end of the day, without the funds you can’t go race. Bobby and Dom Lagana helped a ton as well with buying the right parts at the right price. Without them, we wouldn’t be as far as we are.

“To do this at Norwalk, it means a lot to run here for my first race. My first laps down the strip were at Norwalk. I licensed there for the nostalgia car and tested there quite a bit. I have never raced there, but I am really looking forward to it. There are going to be a lot of friends and family cheering us on. Some of them, it will be their first NHRA race.”

McIntire grew up watching his father, Mike McIntire Sr., compete on the nostalgia scene since he was a little boy. The eldest McIntire got his start in racing in 1984, making a name for himself on the Mid-America Funny Car circuit and other series that housed the popular nostalgia categories. Later in his career, the name McIntire became synonymous with the bright orange-hued machines he would pilot with the name “McAttack” adorning the side. It was the perfect childhood and the perfect backdrop for the younger McIntire to develop a passion for the sport.

“Without growing up at the track and watching my dad race his Funny Car, I wouldn’t be doing this,” McIntire said. “It was a blast traveling up and down the east coast as a kid, racing all weekend with your friends. Who wouldn’t want to do that?”

McIntire finally got his own opportunity behind the wheel in 2014 when he took over the “McAttack” nostalgia machine with the former IHRA Nitro Jam Drag Racing Series, driving his family’s race car to multiple wins and even a few bench-setting marks in the class right out of the gate. It was a big moment for the young driver who grew up idolizing “Bullet” Bob Floch and Ed “The Ace” McCulloch, in addition to his father.

But McIntire wanted more.

After five years behind the wheel, McIntire purchased an ex-Paul Lee/Kalitta Motorsports Toyota and set out to move up the ranks and earn his NHRA Funny Car license. Although the path was far from easy, he earned his license earlier this year with two full passes of 4.60 and 4.34 and immediately begin making plans for his first NHRA start.

“Trying to run the car the first couple of times was an adventure by itself,” McIntire said. “We rented Norwalk originally to test and license and rain put a stop to that. We rescheduled there a few days later and it rained again so, ultimately, we ended up making the first laps at Dragway 42 here in Ohio. After that first outing, we were looking to go license the Monday after the Chicago event, but there was no test the Monday after. So, we ended up renting Indy and making runs there in front of licensed drivers that were good enough to get my license.”

Of course, it won’t just be the large crowds and championship-caliber competition that McIntire will have to adjust to this weekend. He will also have to rewire his brain to prepare for passes in the low four-second range – or perhaps better – as oppose to the five-second and above runs he was used to in a nostalgia Funny Car.

“The difference between nostalgia cars and the modern Funny Car is night and day,” McIntire said. “The big car is so violent compared to the nostalgia car and we still have the ‘training wheel’ tune-up in it. Also, the vision is way different. In the NFC you could barely see the top of the tree, but in the big car you have a lot of vision above the injector. It will be interesting the first time we pull up to the line in competition, that is for sure.”

After a lifetime learning the ropes from his father, McIntire will now bring that familiar orange and black “McAttack” moniker to the big show when he makes his debut this weekend in Norwalk.

“It was a surreal feeling to see my name and the McAttack name on the entry list with guys like (John) Force and (Robert) Hight. It’s a cool deal and we are really looking forward to seeing where this new adventure will take us,” McIntire said. “I am extremely excited and pretty nervous too. I really want to thank my dad and mom for letting me talk them into taking this next step. My wife, Susie, for supporting this endeavor. And my crew guys, they do this because they want to. Without their hard work and dedication, we wouldn’t have even considered doing this. Aaron Brooks especially who came on board as crew chief, has helped tremendously in teaching the ins and outs of the new car. I can’t wait.”

ANYTHING FOR THE WIN - Last season was not a high point in the career of drag racing legend John Force.

A 16-time world champion with a staggering amount of wins, final rounds and accolades in the sport, Force has literally and figuratively done it all in the sport. But he is also 70 years old and, to many, 2018 looked like it might be the beginning of the end.

He had a national event victory, yes, but that lone win at Bandimere Speedway in Denver proved the high mark in an otherwise disappointing season as Force failed to climb above seventh in the standings at any point during the year and finished a disheartening ninth in the Countdown to the Championship.

With the wins coming few and far between and championship contention seemingly a thing of the past, many were wondering - is the career winding down for the greatest to ever get behind the wheel in the NHRA?

And then Force came out at Pomona a new man.

He started to make major changes in his life. He changed his diet. He tuned up his vision. He began to focus on things off the track as much as things on it. And then the round wins started coming.

One after another, a couple wins here, a few more there, and now, at the halfway point of the season, Force sits an impressive second in the Funny Car championship standings, trailing only fellow JFR driver Robert Hight. And then, finally, last week Force reached his first final of the year - a losing effort to Bob Tasca - and suddenly Force feels like he is his old self again, ready to conquer the world.

“I’ve had to make a lot of changes myself and I’ve found out a lot of stuff,” Force admitted. “I’ve been going to doctors, got special glasses and been working on eating habits trying to get off that sugar. I’ve said it before, I’m in the game. That (150th) win is coming.”

That 150th Force is referring to is of course 150 career wins, a milestone Force is just one win shy of. It has been a number hanging heavy over the head of the JRF team boss, and he is ready to put that nagging milestone behind him and move on to bigger and better things this season.

“I’ve got confidence,” admitted the man already inducted into both the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in Daytona Beach, Fla. and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Talladega, Ala. “not just in my car - my car has always been good with (crew chiefs) Brian Corradi and Danny Hood - but I have confidence in me.”

Force rolls into Ohio for the midway event of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season having won 68.9 percent of all the races he’s run (1330-599). On race day, he will either win an unprecedented 150th Mello Yello tour victory, or barring that, lose for the 600th time in a pro career spanning 43 years.

Through the season’s first 11 races, Force is one of only two Funny Car drivers with more than one No. 1 start and the only one to have avoided the dreaded first round loss.

Driving basically the same car in which youngest daughter Courtney won four races and the regular season championship a year ago, he is second in points for the first time since April of 2017.

ANOTHER OFF THE LIST – The list of tracks that Robert Hight has not won at is shrinking by the day.

He has won some of the biggest and most prestigious races that drag racing has to offer, to go along with a couple of championship titles, but for whatever reason, the NHRA Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals at Summit Motorsports Park has eluded the two-time champ.

He is a two-time runner-up, including taking second place honors to Jack Beckman in 2017. He is a three-time top qualifier. He has just about done it all, but hoisting a trophy at the northern Ohio track is not one of them.

“Heading to Norwalk, it’s the last of the four-in-a-row and I’m ready for it. The best thing about these back-to-back races is not having too much time out of the driver’s seat, so I’m feeling good and hoping to go rounds this weekend,” Hight said. “We’ve never won this race, but we’ve finished runner-up before and we’ve qualified well, so I’m excited.”

Hight has been the run-away leader in 2019, having won four times already this season to pull away to a sizable gap over team boss John Force. He’s also been the No. 1 qualifier six times this year, propelling Hight to a new level of success.

Just two weeks ago in Topeka, Hight grabbed his fourth Wally of the season and the 49th of his career tying him with Don “Snake” Prudhomme for 13th on the all-time win list.

“I’m really proud of this Auto Club team. We didn’t make it to the winner’s circle in Bristol but Jimmy Prock and Chris Cunningham, they’re working hard to set us up for the rest of the season. We’ll keep going rounds and get the job done,” Hight said. “We’ve had a really great season. We’re sitting in the points lead, have been all season, and I’m not worried. These guys know this car and we’ll get where we want to be.”

ANY DAY NOW – Ask Funny Car Jack Beckman about his having not won a race yet in 2019, and he will tell you, he isn’t worried one bit.

He has had mini-spells between wins during his illustrious and even suffered through a few winless seasons – the last of those occurring way back in 2014 – but at the end of the day, worried is not the word that Beckman would use to describe his odd start to the 2019 season. Anxious, maybe, but not worried.

Thankfully, this stretch of four-straight races has kept Beckman’s mind occupied with the task at hand, although he would rightly like to check a win off of the list this year after two previous attempts came up short with runner-up finishes in Pomona and Topeka.

“People always ask if I prefer the four-in-a-row or prefer time off in between races. I don’t care; I’m excited either way,” Beckman said. “I feel like all of us on this team are slightly frustrated because we’re good enough to win a race, but we haven’t closed the deal yet. If there’s such a thing as extra incentive for a team like Infinite Hero, I think everyone’s got it right now going into Norwalk.”

Beckman’s season has been an odd one. While not necessarily good or bad, Beckman has fallen in line right in the center. He is fifth in the Funny Car championship standings behind the wheel of the Infinite Hero Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat. He has had two final round visits. He has a winning win-loss record. But it hasn’t been fantastic either. He hasn’t taken a green hat for topping the qualifying charts, something he has done 24 times in his career, and he hasn’t sealed the deal on Sunday.

To add to the dilemma, Beckman’s Funny Car teammates have all collected trophies this season, Ron Capps twice and Tommy Johnson Jr. and Matt Hagan once. So what is it going to take to get Beckman out of his mini funk and into the DSR winner’s circle?

Ice cream.

“Each track has its own unique flavor, and Norwalk is big on their pound of ice cream deal. So, if you win there, not only do you leave with a Wally, but you get an engraved, pewter ice cream scooper. I want that ice cream scooper,” Beckman said. “The Bader family knows how to keep fans happy and really pack the grandstands here. As a driver, that really means something, and I always enjoy racing at Norwalk.”

Hopefully he won’t have to wait long to turn around his fortunes. Beckman is a three-time event champion at Summit Motorsports Park, having won exactly 10 years ago in 2009, and then again in 2015 and 2017. If the math is correct, it might just mean another win for Beckman is right around the corner.

FLIPPING THE SCRIPT – Just three short years ago, J.R. Todd and Shawn Langdon met in the Top Fuel final at Summit Motorsports Park behind the wheel of a couple of dragsters with Langdon taking the win.

Fast forward to 2019 and both Todd and Langdon return to Norwalk, Ohio, this time in the Funny Car class, both desperately needing some success to break out of recent slumps. A lot has changed in the few short years since the pair matched up in a completely different class driving for completely different teams, but the success has remained as the now-teammates at Kalitta Motorsports look to change their fortunes this weekend and would love to settle the score with another final round matchup on Sunday.

“Yeah, Shawn got me in Top Fuel here a few years ago,” Todd said. “I would like to see an all-Toyota Camry final round this weekend. We have been on the opposite sides of the ladder a couple times this season, but it really seems we run into each other in the second or third round. Our agreement is if we have to beat a teammate, we better go on to win the race.”

Despite a win and three finals, defending class champion Todd has slipped from second to sixth in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series standings and will look to turn things around this weekend. Langdon, meanwhile, has fallen to 10th in the standings despite his win in Charlotte earlier this year.

Still, the team has shown promise during this four-race June stretch and Todd believes that a summer turnaround might just be in the cards, just as last year when the team climbed from this same position to win the championship.

“This summer stretch really gets you into a good mindset,” Todd said. “We have four races in a row in June and then we will hit the Western Swing in July. You can figure a lot of things out that will help you in the playoffs. The key is to stay focused on doing the little things. We have a really good tune-up and my guys are working really well together.”

Despite not having the success they need on race day, Todd’s DHL Toyota team has been fast, as evident by their No. 1 qualifier in Topeka two weeks ago, and they hope that speed on Friday and Saturday will start to find its way into their Sunday setups.

“Topeka was a cool deal to qualify No. 1 for the 100th time in Team Kalitta history,” Todd said. “Last week Doug (Kalitta) qualified No. 1 in Top Fuel and Shawn (Langdon) qualified No. 2 in Funny Car in Bristol and that just shows how strong this entire team is. Now we are building on that success on race day and I think we have all the pieces to go rounds.

“This month has flown by. It seems like we were just in Chicago talking about starting this four in a row stretch and now it is almost over. We have won some rounds, but we would definitely like to wrap-up June with our second win of the season.”

 

PRO STOCK
 

IMPRESSIVE - Well, you don’t see that every day.

In one of the more exciting races this season, perhaps even longer for a Friday night, Deric Kramer and Matt Hartford raced to identical, side-by-side 6.559-second passes in the final pairing of the evening as the provisional top spot in Pro Stock was awarded to Kramer based on speed.

Kramer, the most recent race winner on the tour, had a 210.18 mph pass in the American Ethanol Chevrolet Camaro, giving him the top spot on Friday. Hartford, meanwhile, had to settle for second with a pass of 209.59 mph.

“That was probably one of the best runs I’ve had in awhile,” Kramer said. “I was super focused. Coming off of the win in Chicago, I was just ready to get after it.”

Kramer, who is seeking his first No. 1 qualifier of the season and the fourth of his career, was even more excited to make that chart-topping pass on a Friday night, something he is not all that familiar with.

“We have never been the provisional No. 1 qualifier,” Kramer said. “We always sneak in at the last second, but we were able to get it done tonight.”

SOMETHING MISSING - Bo Butner is not happy.

Sure, he has one of the best cars in the entire Pro Stock class. He has four wins. He has been the fastest qualifier twice. And he is leading the Pro Stock points. But Butner still isn’t happy.

Why?

Because the fans aren’t happy. And that just leaves a bad taste in his mouth.

When Butner traveled to the Houston NHRA event earlier this year, he went there as a spectator. Not as a racer. After NHRA cut the Pro Stock class from select races on the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series tour for 2019, some of the races were left without the once-traditional professional traveling class. And the fans noticed. And they weren’t happy about it.

“There are a lot of fans that aren’t happy. And at Houston, they were pissed off,” said Butner, the 2017 Pro Stock class champion. “I was down there to sell t-shirts and they were actually mad that we were not there. I was like, ‘hey, it ain’t our fault.’ But a lot of them had bought tickets well in advance and they didn’t know.”

In addition to some unhappy fans, the change to the class has also proven a disappointment for many of the racers who are left six races short of a full schedule. While that doesn’t sound like a lot, it has proven a bit of a hassle for many of the racers who make the class what it is.

“Of course it sucks. It sucks for Summit and the teams that want to be out here,” Butner said. “I miss Bristol, which sucks because everybody loves Bristol. I miss Atlanta. I will miss Epping. It is just different.”

To make up for that deficit, Butner has expanded his presence in the popular Factory Stock Showdown, a class many consider a potential future substitute for the traditional Pro Stock cars. And he has proven just as successful in that class as he has in his KB-powered Chevy Camaro.

“I thought I was going to be able to take some time off, but it seems like they put the Factory Showdown races at many of those,” Butner said with a laugh. “I won the Factory Stock deal a few years back before it was what it is today. I want to win in that and we have a chance to maybe sneak up there in points. It is competitive, it is fun, but it is very complicated.

“It is way different than Pro Stock. Right now, Factory cars are cool, but they are a lot of work. It is just Chevy versus Ford versus Mopar. Somebody needs to really take off with this class and run with it. Who knows where it will go.”

For now, Butner will balance races in both classes. This weekend in Norwalk, Butner will be bouncing between his Jim Butner Auto Chevy Camaro and his Cobra Jet Mustang, trying to see what damage he can do in either class.

So what is the answer to the Pro Stock scheduling dilemma? Perhaps the answer doesn’t have anything to do with that class in particular, but the series as a whole.

“I think NHRA in general should look at cutting back,” Butner said. “It would create more demand. The fans say the same thing. I’m sure the NHRA will get it figured out. I wouldn’t object to just cutting the whole series back some.”

GO TIME – Jason Line has watched his KB Racing teammates succeed repeatedly to open the 2019 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season. But headed to one of the most important races of the season, Pro Stock standout Jason Line is ready for that momentum to start swinging his way.

Performing well in Norwalk is of utmost importance for Line and his Summit Racing Equipment teammate Greg Anderson, and Line is ready to unleash his Chevrolet Camaro after a two-week break during the new 18-race Pro Stock schedule in 2019. Line has advanced to two final rounds this year, but there haven’t been as many highlights as he’s hoped for, something he’s determined to change this weekend in Norwalk.

“I feel like all the KB cars are running well, but the two Summit cars, we’ve not had the success we want,” said Line, who is fourth in Pro Stock points. “Hopefully we can get one of the two in the winner’s circle this weekend. We’re ready to do it and both cars are getting close. This would be an opportune time, that’s for sure. We’ve got a lot of racing ahead and we’re looking forward to getting back out there. This track has been good to us, so hopefully we can have some more success.”

It is the seventh of 18 races during the 2019 Pro Stock season, and Line will try for his first win of the 2019 season and third overall at Summit Racing Equipment Motorsports Park.

Anderson has three to lead Pro Stock, but this season has belonged to KB Racing teammate Bo Butner, who has four wins this year. Deric Kramer added another Wally to the stable at the most recent Pro Stock race in Chicago, and Line is looking for some of that action. He has seen glimpses, but the success hasn’t been on the level Line has wanted through the first six races. He’s been a top-two qualifier the last two races, which gives Line something to build on in Norwalk.

“We need a little bit of momentum,” Line said. “We need to get things to start rolling and good things to start happening. If you win the championship, nobody will remember the struggles at the start of the season. The start of the year hasn’t been what I hoped, but you can make all that go away if you start running well now. All of these cars in the class are so evenly-matched. It’s tough and you’ve got to be mistake-free out there.”

That’s because Line has to race against all his teammates, plus the likes of two-time world champion Erica Enders, Alex Laughlin and five-time world champ Jeg Coughlin Jr. But Line knows there’s something special about racing in Norwalk. His week is filled with Summit-related activities, immediately building the excitement for the event. Line doesn’t mind the extra pressure and he’s simply looking to break through on Sunday.

“You want to do well in front of your sponsors, that’s for sure,” Line said. “You don’t really have to try to do anything different, but I’ve got to get better and being focused and staying focused. The Bader family does a heck of a job. I love coming here and I would like to get another one of those ice cream scoops (given to the winners).”

CHASING A DREAM - Every race car driver’s career begins with a dream.

It starts with a dream to one day race a car and make a pass in front of friends, family and fans. But then that dream becomes a reality. The nerves of the first few big races dissipate and suddenly that dream just to race becomes a dream to win rounds. And then win races. And then, hopefully one day, championships.

Shane Tucker began with a dream to race. Now, the young Australian is ready to compete.

This weekend, Tucker will be wheeling his Auzmet/StructGlass Chevrolet Camaro onto the Summit Motorsports Park facility in search of his first win on the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series tour. In fact, that has been his goal every week since taking on the momentous task of competing fulltime in the Pro Stock class for the very first time.

It hasn’t been the easiest road, Tucker has failed to qualify for one race and missed another entirely. He has one round win in 2019 and only six round wins in his career. But Tucker is determined to one day look back on these struggles with fondness as a memory of how far he has come.

“I really wanted to commit to running for the NHRA Mello Yello championship this season,” Tucker said. “The only way to do that is to attend every race on the tour. We missed Phoenix due to an engine issue, but we are set for the rest of the season and I think we are continuing to improve every race.”

Helping Tucker turn the corner is a new team and a collection of parts that has been exactly what this team needs. So far this season since Tucker has gotten his motor program under control with the assistance of world champion motor supplier Nick Ferri, Tucker has qualified for the last four Pro Stock races. Ferri previously worked with Elite Performance and plans to continue supplying power to other teams competing in Pro Stock.

His run of qualifying success also includes a quarterfinal finish at the historic Gaternationals in March, a major turning point for this team.

“Gainesville is where we really turned things around for this team,” Tucker said. “We have been making more power every time we go down the track. We are definitely behind a lot of the multi-car teams, but we are not giving up the fight. I am working with my dad Rob to get as much power out of this Camaro as we can.”

This will be the second go-round for Tucker at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals. In 2014, Tucker’s rookie season, he qualified No. 12 and lost a close race to Vincent Nobile in the first round. That season Tucker competed in 10 races and this season he should almost double that amount. The added seat time is a welcome experience for the racer from Australia, who splits time in Dallas, Texas.

“The only way you are going to get better in these car cars is to get seat time,” Tucker said. “We are excited about Norwalk and we are going to stay after the race and test win or lose. You have to keep making runs and getting data to be successful. The past three races we have made almost every run in qualifying to the finish line under power and on race day we just need a few things to go our way.”

 

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE
 

STRAIGHT TO THE TOP - Eddie Krawiec, the defending race winner at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals and winner of two of the last three at Summit Motorsports Park, wasted little time putting himself back in the mix on Friday.

Krawiec came out of the gate swinging with two chart-topping laps, topping both sessions on day one as he raced his Vance & Hines Harley Davidson to the top spot on Friday with a 6.844-second pass at 197.08 mph.

Krawiec’s Vance & Hines teammate Andrew Hines qualified second with a 6.852 at 196.90 mph on Friday.

“It was nice to come off the truck and make two clean runs,” Krawiec said. “Right now both Harleys are running well. We are in what I call a window and hopefully that window doesn’t break anytime soon.”

As with most Friday qualifying sessions, Krawiec watched during the evening run as his run from earlier in the day began to drop down the ladder, but was thrilled to rocket back to the top when his time came.

“It is great to be sitting back and being the last pair, but it is also bad because you are watching people drop you down the ladder,” Krawiec said. “But it also creates drama because you know those last two cars might just leapfrog everyone. And we did just that.”

The run was especially satisfying for Krawiec as his team entered the week preparing to dodge rain drops and were pleasantly surprised when the forecast took a turn for the better.

“We were excited when we saw the forecast. We came here preparing for the worst and were thrilled when we saw we were looking at three days of sunshine,” Krawiec said. “It made us change up our gameplan and approach to the weekend. Now we can focus on our race day setup. Our stuff is very weather dependent and we want to make sure we find that race day setup for those afternoon runs on Sunday.”

If his time holds on Saturday, it will be Krawiec’s third No. 1 qualifier of the season.

SMITH - For a brief second, Matt Smith sat atop the Pro Stock Motorcycle ladder. But while Eddie Krawiec and Andrew Hines would eventually bump him down to third, Smith still managed to make a splash on Friday. Smith set a new track speed record for the two-wheel class with a 6.867-second pass at 198.12 mph to qualify in third. His lap bested the previous record held by Hector Arana Jr. from 2017.

 

A LITTLE BIT AT A TIME - Hector Arana Jr. knows his time is coming.

Arana has done just about everything there is to do in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class, but a championship has eluded the 30-year-old racer. But, as they say in life, there is no time like the present.

Arana’s Lucas Oil Buell is running as well as ever. The team is setting records, including resetting the all-time NHRA speed mark last year at Gainesville as the first bike to exceed 200 mph. And this year, Arana has been one of the most consistent machines in the entire NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series pits. Now, this team is looking to just put it all together.

“The bike is running so good. We are a little bit off on the mile-an-hour, but we got the bike working really good,” Arana said. “If you notice our early numbers, they have been really good this year so we are working on the chassis setup and clutch and getting the bike to work well. We are working on power back at the shop. Hopefully come Countdown time, we should be able to have the power back and we can put it all together.”

So far in 2019, Arana reached at least the semifinals in each and every race and qualified in the top four in every race as well. He broke through with his first win in Las Vegas back in April and he sits third in the championship standings behind only the Harley Davidson boys over at Vance and Hines.

So does the incredible consistency this team has shown put Arana as a favorite to win the championship this season? Arana isn’t shying away from that statement, even with the staggering task of dethroning Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec still in his way.

“It always crosses your mind. I feel really good this year. I feel like I’ve been doing a really good job as far as driving and the lights and all of that,” Arana said. “I’ve kinda just mentally figured out what all I have to do to prepare myself and it seems to be working out. This year has been really good, I am looking forward to what is to come.”

Continuing his streak of qualifying runs inside the top four, Arana was fourth quickest Friday in Norwalk, posting a 6.868 elapsed time at 196.19 mph. He added drama to the run as well, nudging the bike into the sand at the top end, but there was no damage done to the bike.” (Photo by NHRA)

 

 

 

 

 

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