2019 NHRA ROUTE 66 NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
NHRA JOLIET - SUNDAY NOTEBOOK
TOP FUEL WINNER TORRENCE SERVES NOTICE: NO RIVALRY, GOT IT? - After Top Fuel points leader Steve Torrence defeated Mike Salinas in the final round of the NHRA Route 66 Nationals at Joliet, Ill., he served notice – not to the rest of the class but rather to the media.
“Brian Lohnes, you’re talkin’ trash and trying to stir the pot. But it ain’t nothin’, man. That guy right there, I’ve got a lot of respect for him and his family. They come out here and race like us, as a family,” Torrence said at the top end of the Route 66 Raceway dragstrip Sunday.
Then during his press conference in the media center, Torrence set announcer Joe Castello straight when he used the “R word” in asking the Kilgore, Texas, native about the rising star from San Martin, Calif.: “Let me shut you down right there. There is no rivalry. They’re out here, racing no differently than my family and myself are. He’s made his own way. He has a very, very successful couple of companies, juts like my father [part-time Top Fuel driver Billy Torrence] has and I’m getting the benefit from it. He’s out here racing with his family, doing just exactly what we’re doing.
“There is no rivalry. There isn’t going to be any rivalry,” Torrence said. If we go head to head, we’re going to go at it. We’ll definitely race [each other] more than not. There’s no rivalry, but it’ll be fun racing him.”
After scoring his fourth consecutive victory of the year, he said, “Sometimes you’ve just got to call a spade a spade. Sometimes people try to create drama when there’s not.”
Just to let Salinas know, Torrence spoke with him before eliminations began and told him, “Hey, look – there ain’t no trash talk going on between you and me. We’ll let them stir the pot all they want to, but me and you are good.”
Now that that’s out of the way . . . For the record, Torrence won with a 3.763-second elapsed time at 326.32 mph in his Capco / Torrence Family Dragster on the 1,00-foot course. Salinas, the No. 1 qualifier, countered with a 4.102-second elapsed time at 213.74 mph in the Scrappers Racing Dragster.
That gave Torrence a 246-point advantage over Mac Tools Dragster driver Doug Kalitta in the standings as the series moves this weekend to Topeka for the Menard’s Heartland Nationals presented by Minties. Lurking back in third and fourth places are – in order – Salinas and Brittany Force. And Kalitta, Salinas, and Force are separated by only two points.
Moreover, Torrence’s 31st Top Fuel victory and 35th overall (counting his Top Alcohol Dragster success) moved his final-round record to a sparkling 22-4 since 2017.
“If you had asked me seven or eight years ago if I’d have 31 race wins, I would have said you were full of crap, that I just want to get one,” he said.
Torrence shared the winners circle with Tommy Johnson Jr. (Funny Car), Deric Kramer (Pro Stock), and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle).
On the final day of a weekend marked by hot, humid conditions, Torrence and Team were in their element.
“These are the kind of conditions we do really well in. Richard and Bobby, they excel in tracks that are not in tracks that are not the best. This place is great, but it was hot. It was humid. It was tricky to navigate. And they did an exceptional job,” Torrence said, referring to crew chief Richard Hogan and car chief Bobby Lagana of the “Capco Boys” crew.
“I’ve got a really good team, a really good group of guys. I know I say it time and time again, but they’re the reason but they are the reason for this success that we have,” he said. “We have an exceptional group. If one guy were to fall out, that’d probably be the missing piece of the puzzle that we need. I’m very thankful for the team that I have. It’s been an awesome ride if it were to quit today.”
He said he wants “to keep this momentum going. Hat’s off to those Capco Boys and those bad-to-the-bone pipeliners [back in East Texas]. Thank you for working day and night to keep us out here. We appreciate it.”
One of Torrence’s first remarks was to acknowledge Salinas’ daughter Jianna and express thanks that she was uninjured after her second-round accident that ended with her falling from her Pro Stock Motorcycle.
“I’m glad his daughter’s all right after that spill on a Pro Stock Motorcycle,” he said after jumping from his car to accept the Wally trophy. Later he said, “I told her she needs to drive one of these things [a dragster]. You can’t fall off of them, at least.”
Salinas advanced past Scott Palmer, T.J. Zizzo, and Doug Kalitta as he sought his second victory in as many final rounds this season so far. Torrence, the No. 3 starter, beat Terry McMillen, Richie Crampton, Antron Brown along the way to a 22-5 elimination-round record. Susan Wade
JOHNSON TURNS CONFIDENCE INTO FIRST WIN SINCE 2017 SUNDAY IN CHICAGO - Sometimes, it is just your day.
When Tommy Johnson Jr. loaded up in his brand new 2019 Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat with a couple of buddies and made the drive from his home in Indiana up I-65 to Route 66 Raceway, he had a feeling it was going to be his weekend.
And boy was he right.
Johnson turned around a 33-race winless streak Sunday at the 22nd annual Route 66 NHRA Nationals with a big win over Funny Car points leader Robert Hight to earn his first Wally since Pomona in 2017.
“I just felt coming here it was going to be our weekend,” Johnson said. “I brought the Hellcat that I won last year from Dodge and took it on a little road trip. A couple of guys and I jumped in the car and drove up here and had a good time. From that time on it just felt right.
“I’m not superstitious, but the way the weekend went, things kept pointing to (a win) and I felt good about it. I went up there for the final and wasn’t even nervous. There was a little bit of a confidence that, I don’t know where it came from, but something just felt good.”
In a battle between two of the quickest cars of the weekend, Hight and Johnson squared off for the second time in 2019, but the fight was short-lived. While Hight took a slight advantage at the tree, his Auto Club Chevrolet Camaro lit the tires as Hight’s attempt at a fourth win this year literally went up in smoke.
Johnson didn’t fare much better, popping the blower just past the 800-foot mark as he limped across the stripe with a 4.175-second pass at 229.86 mph in the Make-A-Wish Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Funny Car. Hight crossed the line a few ticks later with a 4.438 at 202.55 mph.
“I’ve had that experience before, but that really wasn’t even a blowup, it was a little bang,” Johnson said with a laugh. “It makes your heart stop for a second because you are sitting there coasting and you know he has got to be somewhere and he didn’t come and I thought, ‘ah, thank goodness.’
“It is the longest coasting you have ever done in your life. You are thinking, ‘man, come on, get there.’ I as looking to the right, looking to the finish line. It is amazing how fast your brain can think in these cars. It is incredible how many thoughts go through your head and that seemed like it took five minutes in that split second. I always say that when it blows up like that it is not that big a deal because it happens so fast. I was just lucky it paid off this time.
“When I finally saw the win light come on I was just thrilled for the guys. Doug Chandler, he continued this program and I am just so happy for him to get this win. We have been close a lot of times, so it was nice to finally get it done.”
The win marked Johnson’s 18th career victory and second at Route 66 Raceway. He last won at the Chicago-area track in 2015 over Matt Hagan.
Sunday’s win also served as bragging rights as he and crew chief John Collins took home the win over Hight and Jimmy Prock, a victory made even more special in Johnson’s neighborhood.
“Prock actually lives across the street from me. He is my neighbor, so I get bragging rights this weekend in the neighborhood,” Johnson said.
Johnson added wins over Paul Lee, Matt Hagan and John Force on his way to his second final round of the season. His semifinal matchup against Force, who is still chasing his 150th career NHRA victory, was especially challenging - and a little contentious - as the two engaged in a little gamesmanship at the starting line.
Force lit both bulbs before Johnson could light even one and the decision may have cost him. Force was slow off the line, giving the round win to Johnson with a slower 3.972 at 321.81 to Force’s 3.953 at 322.42 mph.
“I was in the other lane when he won his 100th and I’ve heard it over and over and over. And if I can do anything about him winning 150, I will,” Johnson said. “I don’t know if he did it by accident, or if he was trying to use his experience up there, but he double-bulbed me and I thought, ‘you just did the wrong thing because I am going to let you sit there and think about it for a minute.’ And it paid off. I think it threw him off a little bit.
“He isn’t the only one that has been out here driving for a long time. It is kind of funny because he and I are the two longest running active Funny Car drivers right now. I used some of my experience against him and it paid off. He is a legend of the sport and you respect that, you don’t get to 149 wins by being a chump. He is pretty tough and everytime you go up there you do it with both barrels loaded.”
Hight had wins over Jim Campbell, Cruz Pedregon and Jack Beckman to reach his fifth final in nine races.
It was a big moment for Johnson in particular as he snapped a losing spell that was beginning to wear on the team. But with the team finally over the hump, Johnson is hoping it is only a matter of time before the team starts adding more.
“I think when you get close so many times it kind of builds a hunger and you want it a little more,” Johnson said. “You can easily get dejected and get bummed out because we can’t get it done, but you have to get past that. I think we’ve gotten smarter and better every year. This is my sixth year with this team and what I am proud of is that we learn and we use that to get better. It seems like every year we are just a little bit better and, hopefully, it will all pay off in the end.”
While Sunday was all about confidence for Johnson, he admits that he may have had a little added luck on his side in the form of a star, a star with the name Terry Chandler after the late team owner.
“The Make-A-Wish chapter bought a star and had it named after her and it was John Collins’ idea to put (the coordinates of the star) on the roof hatch of the car,” Johnson said. “All the time you feel like someone is watching over you and she was most definitely with us this weekend.” Larry Crum
KB POWER PROVES STRONGEST ON RACE DAY AS KRAMER EARNS THIRD CAREER WIN AT ROUTE 66 NATS - The NHRA Pro Stock class has turned into a bit of a war zone as of late.
As the list of drivers in either the KB Racing or Elite Motorsports camps continues to grow each year, the competition between two of the most successful teams in the Pro Stock class only increases. So when a driver like Deric Kramer has the kind of weekend he did Sunday in Joliet just outside of Chicago, it makes a win all that much more impressive.
Kramer survived a grueling afternoon in his KB Racing-powered American Ethanol Chevrolet Camaro, leaving a path of Elite drivers in his wake as he drove to his third career win and his first since August at the 22nd annual Route 66 NHRA Nationals at Route 66 Raceway.
“It was a big weekend for us. It sucks when you have to face your own teammate during a weekend. I would rather win against my team, but at the end of the day, I don’t want to knock them out either,” Kramer said. “I hope (during a race) I can walk away with wins against them, luckily this weekend I didn’t have to.”
Kramer knocked off one Elite driver after another before meeting Erica Enders, one of Elite’s most accomplished drivers, in the final. While quicker much of the afternoon, Kramer knew it would be a tough matchup against one of the best leavers in the sport, but Enders quickly turned the race into a non-factor when she lit the red bulb by -.014 to hand the win to Kramer.
With the win in hand, Kramer cruised to a 6.532-second pass at 210.70 mph, the quickest pass of the entire weekend.
“I got lane choice in the semifinals, that is how I was able to get it done,” Kramer said. “I think we made the best runs, and I think the entire field made the best runs, out of that particular lane. And when you can make good runs, you put a lot of pressure on the other driver to give it all they have. Luckily, I came out ahead on that particular coin flip. We laid down a great pass and when you do that, you force them to give it all they have and that is when mistakes happen. The pressure is all in the starting line in this particular class and if you don’t perform you go home. I am glad I could capitalize.
“When you see that win light on before you are even in high gear, it is a relief and you can enjoy the ride. You get six seconds of fun.”
Kramer, who came into race day qualified sixth, added wins over Rodger Brogdon, Matt Hartford and Alex Laughlin to reach his sixth career final and first of 2019. It was only the third time all season Kramer advanced more than one round as a series of mistakes has left the team struggling over the past few months.
“Mistakes have been our biggest detriment since Brainerd,” Kramer said. “Beginning at Indy through the Countdown last year and into this year, it was the little mistakes. And when you make mistakes in this class, you can’t win.”
Enders had wins over Val Smeland, Richard Freeman and Greg Anderson to reach her first final of 2019.
With a win in the books already, Kramer says his team is ready to shift gears and focus on using what they learned this weekend the rest of the year, minimizing mistakes and riding that to, what he hopes, is championship contention.
“We went into the Countdown (last year) not knowing how to race the Countdown,” Kramer said. “We didn’t have enough parts and just weren’t prepared. We didn’t intend to run as many races as we did and we pretty much used up our stuff. This year we are spreading out our parts purchases a little more and making sure we have stuff prepped and ready to go. Hopefully that will translate to not so many first round exits the rest of the year.”
And, it certainly doesn’t hurt having that KB power under the hood for he and crew chief Mike Hiner, affectionately nicknamed Bobby Hill after the character of the same name on the cartoon “King of the Hill,” to work with.
“(Hiner) has had some success in the past, always coming up good on his 60-foot times, even when not having some of the power of the bigger teams out there,” Kramer said. “Now that we have some good KB power, he is doing really well for this team.” Larry Crum
MATT SMITH PREVAILS AT JOLIET ON PRO STOCK BIKE LADIES DAY AT DRAG RACES - The Harley-Davidson contingent and Hector Arana Jr. could have hogged all the Pro Stock Motorcycle victories this season, as well as they’ve been performing. But it was only a matter of time before reigning champion Matt Smith made his statement.
And Sunday was the day.
Smith defeated Karen Stoffer in the final round of the NHRA Route 66 Nationals at Joliet, Ill., to become only the third winner in the class in 2019.
He used a 6.807-second elapsed time and 198.88-mph speed on the Route 66 Raceway quarter-mile to top Stoffer’s 6.885, 193.71 on the Stoffer Enterprises Suzuki and earn a repeat victory here. In 2018, he defeated L.E. Tonglet in the final.
“Our Red Rocket showed up. This Denso Sparkplugs EBR motorcycle was on kill today. All in all, we were the quickest bike every round all day,” Smith said. “I can’t say enough about my crew, [wife and teammate] Angie, and everybody who helps us. I had a good day.”
Smith remains in fourth place in the standings as action shift this coming weekend to the Menard’s Heartland Nationals presented by Minties. Stoffer, racing in her first final round at the suburban-Chicago facility, improved one place to fifth in the rankings.
He did it with the help of a trusty engine.
“We needed to get a win for this year, so we pulled out the champion motor,” Smith said. “We’ve got to get it fresh. It’s going back to Elite to get honed after this race. She’ll be better. It’s worn out. But it was pretty fast today. It’ll be better when she shows up when we decided to pull it back out.”
The engine was reliable enough still to get the King, N.C., racer to the No. 2 qualifying position as he set top speed of the meet, as well, at 200.00 mph in time trials.
Smith eliminated Steve Johnson, Angelle Sampey, and his wife Angie Smith on the way to his second final round this year. Stoffer the No. 9 qualifier, from Gardnerville, Nev., reached the final by defeating Ryan Oehler, Eddie Krawiec, and Hector Arana Jr.
It was day thatstarted out looking like Ladies Day at the Drag Races. Stoffer was one of five females to win among the first-round pairings. A record six females qualified for the 16-racer field.
But in the end, Matt Smith denied Stoffer her first victory since the 2015 Norwalk race to share the winners circle with Tommy Johnson Jr. (Funny Car), and Deric Kramer (Pro Stock). Susan Wade
NHRA JOLIET – Saturday Notebook
BIKER MATT SMITH CLOCKS 200 MPH, SNAP-ON BOSS ENDORSES DRAG RACING, CHANGES COMING WITH BODE TEAM, TAFC’s BOHL CRASHES
IT'S D-4 AGAIN - The NHRA's Div. 4 (South Central Division) took home the JEGS AllStar team title once again and the Central Region captured the alcohol crown at the most prestigious race-within-a-race sportsman events on the NHRA sportsman tour at the NHRA Route 66 Nationals.
NHRA's Div. 4 includes Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Arkansas
The victory ensured all members of the Div. 4 team would share a $20,000 bonus courtesy of event sponsor JEGS Mail Order.
Armed with the success of four individual champions, the Division 4 team scored crucial victories from Jeff Lopez (Stock), Christopher Dodd (Super Comp), Cy Hill (Super Street), and Darian Boesch (Top Dragster). A reasonable close second place finish was turned in by Div. 2 (Southeastern), while Div. 1 (Northeastern) was third.With the victory, Div. 4 tied Div. 3 (North Central) for most team victories at eight.
The Central Division claimed the alcohol portion scored the title when they won a tiebreaker over the West Region team. Those winners included Joey Severance (Top Alcohol Dragster) and Ray Drew (Top Alcohol Funny Car).
Other winners included Frank Aragona (Comp), Jeff Dona (Super Stock), John Labbous Jr. (Super Gas), and Kynon Dinkel (Top Sportsman).
JEGS Allstars overall team points (final standings)
Division 4 1,200
Division 2 1,000
Division 1 900
Division 3 700
Division 7 500
Division 5 200
Division 6 200 - Bobby Bennett
SNAP-ON CEO PROMOTES SPORT – If the NHRA needs an ambassador in corporate circles, it has a staunch ally in Snap-on Tools Chairman and CEO Nick Pinchuk.
He looks forward to gathering with the company’s 600 guests here at Route 66 Raceway so much that when the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule for the next season is published, he marks the date on his calendar. In the past, he has arranged his travels to Asia around this race weekend, and this time he was fresh from a trip to London. And he made an impassioned speech for the sport during Funny Car qualifying Saturday.
“I travel all over the world, and I just got back from London. And I can say this: that this is the greatest country in the world, without question. And there’s no more American sport than NHRA. It’s got the qualities: power, ingenuity, teamwork, and other things that have made America great. So we invest in this [sport]. Power’s rolling down the strip – 11,000 horsepower,” Pinchuk said in a Q&A session for the crowd with track announcer Joe Castello.
“You can go in the pits and you can see ingenuity and teamwork with Snap-on Tools, fixing and rebuilding engines. And we enable courage by investing 27 years with Cruz Pedregon, one of the most courageous drivers. We feel really privileged to be here,” he said. “I encourage everybody to come out here every time they get near and NHRA event, ‘cause it’s a great event. I wouldn’t miss it.”
Pedregon was 11th in the order after the third qualifying session and before racing was suspended at 5:08 p.m. because lightning was detected within 10 miles of Route 66 Raceway. After a three-hour hold, Pedregon improved to eighth place and will lane choice for the fifth time in nine races. He’ll line up against No. 9 Tim Wilkerson.
Before coming here, Pedregon had been in the shop at Brownsburg, Ind., making use of time there before this four-races-in-four-weekends stretch began this weekend. Be racing in Sunday’s runoffs
He said, “We've been prepping and building parts, getting ready for back-to-back races and getting the Snap-on Funny Car [with his El Demonio body] where we want it. This is an important race for us each year because it's considered the 'home track' for our primary sponsor, Snap-on, who hosts around 600 guests here for the race each year. And, it's always fun to have the Chairman and CEO Nick Pinchuk visit the pit and see how we put the company's tools and tool storage to work here at the track. He's a big fan of the sport and long-time supporter of my racing career."
It has been an exciting initiation for new hospitality director Jeff "Gypsy" Mohr, whose honed his skills with Don "The Snake" Prudhomme, starting in 2003. Team Manager Caleb Cox called Mohr’s hiring “a bold free-agent move.”
HARLEY RIDERS MOTIVATE OEHLER – Andrew Hines has dominated the Pro Stock Motorcycle class with four victories in five races and a 17-1 record that puts him within seven round-victories from a career total of 500. That might be overwhelming or intimidating to some competitors, but it’s inspiring to second-year pro Ryan Oehler. The Bloomington, Ill., racer has ridden his Flyin’ Ryan Racing EBR to fifth in the standings. He still is seeking his first victory, and he spoke admiringly of the points leader and his Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson Street Rod teammate Eddie Krawiec.
“It’s great to see how quickly we’re catching everybody, and we’re hopeful it shows big things are going to come. It’s great to have someone like Andrew and Eddie (Krawiec) to go after. I like to be the guy chasing everybody down,” Oehler said.
Oehler closed Friday qualifying in the tentative ninth place in the Pro Stock Motorcycle order.
“We know we still have some work to do, but the power’s there and that’s clear,” Oehler said. “We just need to keep testing and testing. It’s just experience and tuning right now. But we’re coming in right where we left off in Virginia [where he scored his third quarterfinal finish] and we want to keep getting better. You just have to keep chipping away, and that’s what it’s going to take in this class.”
Oehler, a frugal 35-year-old racer who still uses the trailer he bought when he was 16 years old, said in a video posted on his social-media site, “I’m definitely the underdog out here. There’s no doubt about that. We come from a small operation. I’m very comfortable being the underdog. I like it when the pressure’s on.”
He said when he’s on the bike he tunes out everything around him, as well as any thoughts about being an underdog: “You don’t see the people. You don’t see anything. You just look down the track. You’re looking at your target. Really, at that point, the underdog thing’s just out the window. It’s all about your preparation. And we definitely would say that our strongest point of our race team is our work ethic.”
Oehler will start eliminations from the No. 8 position and will meet No. 9 Karen Stoffer in the first round.
KRAMER VERSUS . . . BROGDON – No. 6 Deric Kramer will go up against No. 11 Rodger Brogdon in the first round of eliminations Sunday. And it will heighten a gratifying weekend for Kramer, who is racing this weekend with dad David.
David Kramer has been competing in a Factory Stock Copo Camaro in the Comp Eliminator class, mainly giving it shakedown as he prepares for next weekend’s race at Topeka’s Heartland Park. There David Kramer will get to race with another one of his children, 22-year-old daughter Daria Kramer – who has been racing, including her licensing passes, for about two weeks. Deric Kramer will be idle, for the Pro Stock class is not scheduled to compete at Topeka.
“I think we’ve had a good race car the last couple of events. We’ve juts done a lot of silly things to keep us from advancing,” Deric Kramer said. “I hope we’ve got that all out of our system so we can actually produce this weekend and go some rounds.”
With Bo Butner slipping to an uncharacteristic No. 8 starting position and a Round 1 date with Jeg Coughlin, Kramer said he sees the door ajar for him to make up some ground.
He said he told Butner, “I don’t know what it’s like to win four races. The only feeling I know is what it’s like to keep you from winning five.”
McGAHA SAYS HIS PROBLEM IS HIMSELF – Pro Stock’s Chris McGaha wrote on his social-media page this week that he plans to be “all gas, no brakes for the #Route66Nats this weekend.” The Harlow Sammons Chevrolet Camaro owner-driver was 12th after Friday qualifying, and then Saturday afternoon he posted his best elapsed time of the weekend at 6.632 seconds – but didn’t budge from 12th place. So he shelved his “all gas, no brakes” motto.
“I think we’re on normal routine at this point. That’s what it seems like,” McGaha said. “It hasn’t been too bad. But we don’t know how to qualify. We kind of act like we know how to race, but we don’t know how to qualify. We’re horrible at it.”
His best starting position in the class’ five previous events is eighth (at Gainesville, Fla.). Again Saturday, the Odessa, Texas, native will give up lane choice in the opening round. This time it’ll be to Richard Freeman, the No. 5 qualifier.
Racers in every class often spend two-thirds of the weekend just trying to figure out the track surface, and McGaha said he figured that’s about right: “It really is. I need . . . oh, I don’t know . . . six qualifying runs. That’s what I need – about six qualifying runs.”
With seemingly infallible points leader Bo Butner forfeiting some of his mystique this weekend, McGaha said, “You’ve got to take a situation. Bo has beaten me twice, and I should have beaten him both times. I actually raced him three times this year. I had him on the tree at Pomona and the car went left and lost. I was running good enough at Vegas that I should have beat him in the quad. And I got beat on a holeshot at Richmond.
“I’m part of the problem because I’m not getting it done,” McGaha said, shaking his head. “I’m the problem.”
T.J.’S BIG ADVENTURE – From a flapping hood on his beater car Thursday to flipping flapjacks for the fans Saturday, with a lightning scare that emptied the grandstands followed by a deluge that further delayed racing, this week has been an adventure for Lincolnshire, Ill., independent Top Fuel driver T.J. Zizzo.
He was preparing for work Thursday and thinking about the weekend ahead as he drove down the road, when his vision suddenly was blocked by something black and mysterious – “across my windshield, out of nowhere,” he recalled.
“At first I was like, ‘What the hell happened?’ I was thinking a panel from the semi in front of us came at me. I’m like, ‘No – that’s my hood,’” Zizzo said.
“I was in the left lane, so I was able to pull over to the left shoulder. No big deal. Slammed the hood back down and kept on trucking. The car’s out here in the parking lot,” the man who described himself as “someone who should have double-checked his hood” said. “The last time I opened the hood was in the dead of winter in Chicago. So it was cold – maybe 10 degrees outside, maybe zero. When I slammed it, it didn’t latch completely."
That mishap behind him, Zizzo managed to qualify No. 9 and is set to race No. 8 Leah Pritchett when eliminations start.
"We had two good rounds and two break-in-tire rounds," Zizzo said. "Simple as that. We had two good runs doing what we know how to do here and two rounds where we were breaking in new tires, which has to be done sometime."
Zizzo Racing competes at only a few events each season but has run strong when it shows up. Zizzo advanced to the semifinal round here last year. And he was provisional No. 1 qualifier and reached the semifinals this March at the Gatornationals at Gainesville, Fla.
In the past, the team raced at more events but won fewer rounds. Now, with experience, quality parts, and track time, Zizzo is improving and is being taken more seriously in his Rust-Oleum Dragster. He said the difference between running 10-13 races a year and winning a round or two and racing three or four times a year and winning rounds at nearly every race is simple.
"It's pressure," he said. "Quite simply, it's pressure. When you don't have a competitive race car, you're here to have fun. When you have a competitive race car, you're here to turn on win lights. And that's where we're at as a team."
Saturday morning he staged his annual Nitro Cakes, feeding fans for free at his pit. He followed with an autograph session at the Mello Yello fan experience.
NHRA JOLIET – Friday Notebook
PRO CAR COUNT BEST OF YEAR, KALITTA, BROWN POISED TO EXCEL, LINE LEADS IN PRO STOCK, KRAWIEC TOPS IN PRO STOCK BIKE, 11 LOOK FOR FIRST TOP FUEL VICTORY, CAPPS KEEPS LUCKY LIVERY, COUGHLIN’S MIND GOING IN ALL DIFFERENT DIRECTIONS, BUTNER JINXED AT JOLIET?
BEST CAR COUNT – Top Fuel racer Richie Crampton certainly noticed the Route 66 Nationals has attracted the largest pro car count of the year and said that’s a positive sign.
“I think there are over twenty Top Fuel dragsters on the entry list for this weekend, which shows you how strong NHRA is right now,” the DHL Dragster driver for Kalitta Motorsports said. “This is a major city with a great racetrack, so everyone wants to get in on the racing.”
The 21-dragster field is the largest this season, topping the list of 18 entries at both the Gatornationals and the Virginia Nationals. It’s a marked improvement from the thin 14-car order at the season-opening Winternationals. At 19 entries, the Funny Car field matches the season-best at the Charlotte four-wide event. The Pro Stock class also drew 19, the most this year. The one class which has a strong showing this weekend but not a season-best count is Pro Stock Motorcycle. Eighteen riders this weekend are more than plenty to fill the bike lineup. But the class had 23 at its March debut at Gainesville, Fla., and 19 at two other races (Las Vegas and Charlotte).
Of the top four most successful pro racers at Route 66 Raceway, only one remains an active driver. He’s Jeg Coughlin, the sixth time Pro Stock winner. Eight-time series champion Tony Schumacher has six Top Fuel victories here in the are where he grew up, and nitro legend Kenny Bernstein and two-time Funny Car champ Tony Pedregon have three apiece here. Schumacher is sidelined without a sponsor and shares the FOX TV booth at least temporarily with Pedregon these days. And Bernstein is retired. Nine drivers have three Joliet victories – including Antron Brown, John Force, Matt Hagan, Doug Kalitta, and Jason Line – but four others who also won here three times are inactive: Whit Bazemore, Larry Dixon, Kurt Johnson, and Del Worsham.
LINE THE SUMMIT STAR THIS TIME – With three victories in six final rounds, Pro Stock’s Jason Line said Route 66 Raceway “is a special place for me, and if everything goes as we hope, we'll have another Team Summit final round.” The KB / Summit Racing Chevrolet Camaro team indeed was dominant Friday – and for the first time all season, Bo Butner wasn’t a factor in the equation.
Line, who said he has “a special bond” with this gleaming suburban-Chicago facility, led the class in qualifying Friday at 6.582 seconds, edging teammate Greg Anderson by one-thousandth of a second. First-session leader Matt Hartford was a close third with a 6.85-second elapsed time.
As for Butner’s No. 8 showing Friday, Line said with mock woe, “Bo had a bad day – for the first time in months! He has been doing great – he has been in the right place at the right time. He’s showing us how to do it.”
“The starting line is always super, super good, and it was again today,” Line said. “Downtrack . . .a little iffy, but the starting line is unbelievable here. Made a good run, and we’re fortunate enough to be on the pole.”
Line recorded the first of his 48 Pro Stock victories here 15 years ago, in 2004. He defeated Greg Anderson in the final round. That match-up was the third all-KB Racing final round and the first and only so far at Joliet. As of the most recent event, at Richmond, Va. (where Line earned his 600th Pro Stock elimination round in his opening pairing), KB Racing drivers have gone head-to-head for the trophy 45 times. Line has come up on the winning end of those showdowns 18 times. Anderson has won them 22 times, and Butner five times.
Line, a Minnesota native who lives today in Mooresville, N.C., has three Pro Stock championships (2006, 2011, 2016), as well as one sportsman championship in Stock Eliminator (1993).
Just for the record . . . Butner had a glimmer of glory Friday. His 209.85-mph speed was fastest of the day.
KALITTA POISED – Doug Kalitta is right where he wants to be: at Route 66 Raceway, on a hotter racetrack, and poised to make a run at the Top Fuel points and a little bit of class history. If he gets his fourth Joliet victory and his first here since 2006, he’ll tie Kenny Bernstein as the No. 2 overall Top Fuel winner at this facility. The Mac Tools Dragster driver has won the spring Chicago event twice (2006 and 2004) and earned his first Joliet victory at the 2002 fall NHRA national event which is no longer contested. Kalitta also led the field here three times (1999, 2003, 2014).
“It has been a while since we parked this Mac Tools Top Fuel Dragster in the winner’s circle at Route 66 Raceway, but we have a really good race car this season,” 45-time overall winner Kalitta said. “We have been going rounds, and I have a lot of confidence in my team. The Chicago event is a big one for us. We’ll have a lot of VIPs from Mac Tools at the race.
“We have been running well in qualifying and starting most races from the top half of the field. That gives us lane choice on Sunday to start the day, and we are trying to take advantage of that. The key is to get a good qualifying spot and then really race the track on Sunday. We have had some tricky track conditions, but I think we have a really good tune-up for these next races in the heat,” the Winternationals winner said.
“We are getting into a stretch of back-to-back races, which I like. I love driving the Mac Tools Top Fuel Dragster, and when it is running strong there is no better place to be than in that cockpit. This weekend in Chicago is the start of four in a row, and I am looking to get on a streak starting this weekend,” Kalitta said. “You really get into a nice groove. When you are having success, you can really feed off of those wins. When you maybe make a mistake, you know you can put it behind you and get right back in the car in a couple days.”
Kalitta is zooming up on his 500th appearance. This is his 498th race and if/when he qualifies, it will be his 491st start. He has 45 triumphs in 97 finals and has 49 No. 1 qualifying positions.
BROWN ’ON CUSP OF SOME GREAT THINGS’ – To a drag racer, the phrase “rolling in the deep” might connote the act of deep-staging at the starting line, trying to record a stellar reaction time. To music fans, it’s the title of Adele’s award-winning song. To Adele, the phrase – according to her explanation in a Rolling Stone magazine article – is an "adaptation of a kind of slang, slur phrase in the U.K. called 'roll deep,' which means to have someone, always have someone that has your back, and you're never on your own . . . if you're ever in trouble you've always got someone who's going to come and help you fight it.”
Top Fuel racer Antron Brown has that today in his Matco Tools Dragster team. And like Adele, who sang that “there’s a fire starting in my heart,” the biker-turned-three-time-dragster-champion said, “I've got a fire in me right now because I want to win so bad."
He’s seeking his first victory since last July’s race at Seattle.
“I think we're on the cusp of some great things, and Chicago would be a great place to kick it off. We just need to keep our heads down and keep improving.”
Brown won here on a Pro Stock Motorcycle in 2000 and 2001 and in a Top Fuel car in 2012, 2014, and 2016. He also was runner-up at Route 66 Raceway twice in Top Fuel (2009, 2017) and once in Pro Stock Motorcycle (2002). In 2009 and 2015, Brown was the No. 1 Top Fuel qualifier here.
At the most recent race, he qualified 11th and advanced to the finals but fell to Steve Torrence by .0212 of a second. He’s sixth in the standings as he continues to drive with the special Matco Tools for the Cause paint scheme to benefit the Fisher House Foundation. Starting May 1, Matco will donate 15% of net sales of Tools for the Cause items to the Fisher House Foundation through the end of 2019. For nearly 30 years, the Fisher House program has provided “a home away from home” for families of patients receiving medical care at major military and V.A. medical centers. These homes offer free, temporary lodging to military and veterans’ families, allowing them to be close to their loved one during a medical crisis and to focus on the healing process. More than 368,000 families have benefited from the Fisher House Foundation since it was established in 1990.
Moreover, Brown said, "Chicago is the hometown track for the boss man, Don Schumacher, and I have a feeling that all of our DSR cars are going to show out there. We've had a lot of success in Chicago.”
JINXED AT JOLIET? – Logic would dictate that a racer would have a more relaxed weekend when the event is closer to home. That doesn’t seem to be the case for Bo Butner, of Floyds Knobs, Ind.
Ten years ago June 5, a freak Friday accident in the pits left Butner, then exclusively a sportsman competitor, in Joliet’s Silver Cross Hospital with four pins inserted into his left leg during a five-hour surgery to stabilize a broken femur and ankle. This visit has left him scrambling to replace a new Nitro Fish merchandise trailer that caught fire Wednesday on its journey to Route 66 Raceway, destroying all the souvenirs inside.
The trailer belongs to Pro Stock points leader Butner and fiancée/racer Randi Lyn Shipp but contained T-shirts and other gear to be sold on behalf of other racers, including Funny Car driver Cruz Pedregon.
In a Facebook post Wednesday, Pedregon wrote, “Sorry to say to the fans for the next couple weeks that Cruz Pedregon Racing will not have any gear for sale at the racetrack as [the result of] a terrible circumstance. The Nitro Fish merchandise trailer had an electrical fire on its way to Chicago, and all of our gear was lost in the fire.”
According to Cruz Pedregon Racing team manager Caleb Cox, the trailer didn’t house as much of the Funny Car organization’s gear as it did the souvenir T-shirts and accessories of other teams.
Cox said, “But thanks to the guys that print our T-shirts, Total Impact wear, and the guys that do our hats from Fuel Clothing, as soon as the T-shirt trailer is ready to go again, those guys are going to get stuff pumped out for us so we can get it back to the hands of the fans.”
The plan is for Butner to secure a new trailer to get back on the road with fresh merchandise by next week’s race at Topeka.
Butner’s painful 2009 mishap, no fault of his own, came when he and an associate were riding in a golf cart in the Lucas Oil Series pits at Route 66 Raceway, delivering race tickets to a friend. Another buddy in a truck spotted Butner ahead of him and wanted to give Butner’s golf cart a playful rear-bumper tap. As he started to hit the brakes, he accidentally mashed down on the accelerator instead. Butner and his passenger were ejected from the golf cart. The passenger, who had been recovering from arm and shoulder surgeries, was not hospitalized.
"It happened where the blacktop and the gravel met," Butner said. "The golf cart flipped in the air twice. It landed on my foot first, then on top of me."
Compounding the calamity was the fact the pit accident happened on day after a fire heavily damaged the reconditioning shop of his family-owned used-car dealership at Clarksville, Ind., just across the Ohio River from Louisville, Ky. Family friends said a welding accident was to blame.
"It was an eventful week," Butner, sporting a boot cast and hobbling around on crutches, said back in 2009.
The same could be said of this one.
THRILLIN’ WITH McMILLEN – Young Cam McMillen is among the 6.5-million-plus Internet viewers who enjoy YouTube star Stephen Sharer’s family-friendly videos. From that fan interest grew a relationship between Cam’s dad, Top Fuel driver Terry McMillen, and the mastermind of the SHARER FAM program in which Stephen and his brother Carter Sharer, as well as sisters Lizzy and Grace Sharer and their dog Otter, bring subscribers along on crazy adventures near their Oakton, Va., home. In keeping with his goal to “brighten your day and have as much fun as possible,” Stephen Sharer accepted McMillen’s invitation to attend the recent Virginia Nationals. There at Tommy Franklin’s Virginia Motorsports Park, south of Richmond, McMillen gave Sharer an introduction to the sights, sounds, smells, and sensation of the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series in his Amalie Oil Dragster pit.
Last year Terry McMillen Racing hosted Stephen’s younger brother Carter and sister Lizzy, also YouTube stars in their own right, to the Virginia race, and that experience earned millions of views.
"Watching the Top Fuel dragsters was an exhilarating experience unlike any other,” Stephen Sharer said in a recent episode of his show about his nitro nirvana at the NHRA races. “I had an epic day supporting Team McMillen and experiencing the family-friendly fun. I can’t wait to come back next year!"
The video Stephen Sharer Experiences NHRA Virginia Nationals follows Sharer as he absorbs a Mello Yello Drag Racing Series event for the first time and includes behind-the-scenes and on-track highlights from McMillen’s Amalie Oil Dragster team, along with other sights and sounds in the pits.
“We had a blast introducing Stephen to NHRA drag racing and our Amalie Motor Oil Top Fuel team. I became part of the Sharer Fam when Cameron subscribed to Stephen’s YouTube channel, and now that Stephen has been to the races, we consider him part of the Amalie Family,” McMillen said. “It was amazing to see Stephen interact with other drivers and the fans in Virginia. He had no idea what he was going to see, and he was blown away by everything. I am thrilled we were able to introduce Stephen and his brother Carter plus their millions of fans to a sport that my whole family loves.”
BATTER UP – After three final-round appearances in eight races so far this season, the battery of Top Fuel driver Clay Millican and crew chief Mike Kloeber could turn a double play this weekend in suburban Chicago. Millican won this event last year as part of a back-to-back effort that turned out to be his only victories of the season that saw him finish third in the standings.
His Chicago White Sox / Parts Plus Dragster line-up, he said, is shaping up and starting to produce: “For the most part, it’s been a total team effort by a group of people who were thrown together very quickly,” Millican said. “Essentially, we were starting from scratch. But these guys have been so dedicated and they’ve shown they want to do this. I’m having a blast and once we got over the first couple races, it’s been so much fun. It’s been a total blast working with Mike again. One thing we’ve not done is win a NHRA race together, so getting a win is taking top priority at the moment.”
Millican threw out the ceremonial first pitch at the White Sox’s game Thursday against the Cleveland Indians. And he put it right over the plate (unlike the woman who got the honor the night before and saw her errant pitch strike the photographer). But Millican really wants to be the closer – at least at the dragstrip in this season he has dubbed his “Unfinished Business” tour. He wants that first NHRA series championship pennant to display among his six IHRA Top Fuel banners.
He said his dragster “has been a home-run hitter the last few years, but we’ve been working on consistency. What we’re trying to do is make the car go down the track as much as possible. The biggest thing for a small team with four races in a row is making sure we’re careful how we do things. We’re looking out for each other and we race smart, because that’s what we have to do, but come race day all bets are off.”
So will Millican and Kloeber, those “Boys of Summer,” be swinging for the fences? That would depend on the track condition, weather conditions, and what might be at stake at the moment.
Steve Cole, Straightline Strategy Group’s senior vice-president of marketing and sales, said the partnership with the Major League Baseball team – reminiscent of Millican’s alignment with the team for his first-ever start at an NHRA event in in 1998 - destined to be a home run.” Millican, whose victory last year was on that 20th anniversary of his first NHRA race, is hoping for a grand slam.
11 SEEKING FIRST TOP FUEL VICTORY – Montana Brand / Rocky Mountain Twist Dragster driver Austin Prock is one of 11 Top Fuel racers in the field of 21 who are aiming for a first NHRA Top Fuel victory.
The others are Cameron Ferre, Lex Joon, Chris Karamesines, Dom Lagana, Luigi Novelli, Scott Palmer, Shawn Reed, Jordan Vandergriff, Kyle Wurtzel, and T.J. Zizzo.
“This Montana Brand / Rocky Mountain Twist team had a great first weekend with my new crew chief Mike Green,” Prock said of his performance at the recent Virginia Nationals. “We made great progress. and Mike, the new crew guys, and Ronnie Thompson all put in work to get this thing down the track. I feel like we have some momentum. I’ve got great crew chiefs, a solid crew behind me and I feel as if we are all gelling really well.”
Prock hasn’t competed as a driver at this facility. but he said he kind of feels at home.
“I grew up racing a few minutes down the road at Grundy County Speedway. Won a handful of races and a championship there,” he said. “It would be really cool to get it done in front of a possibly familiar crowd.”
Grundy County Speedway is a one-third-mile, high-banked, paved oval at Morris, Ill., just south and west of Route 66 Raceway. The super short track has attracted such drivers as Bobby Allison, Johnny Benson, Dale Earnhardt, Mark Martin, Ted Musgrave, Paul Newman, Ryan Newman, and Tony Stewart.
But Prock is on a straight path now, and he’s trying to become the fifth John Force Racing driver this year to earn a Wally trophy.
FOUR STRAIGHT IS FUN – Kalitta Motorsports Top Fuel driver Richie Crampton said he’s happy about the upcoming stretch of four races in as many weekends. The Mello Yello Series will move from Joliet to Topeka to Bristol, Tenn., to Norwalk, Ohio, before the perhaps even-more-taxing Western Swing begins. I enjoy working on the cars and chassis back at the shop and I really enjoy working on the race car at the track. We still do a lot of fan events and sponsor events but when you are totally focused on your car it definitely helps me on the track,” the DHL Dragster driver said.
“I know my DHL dragster can go rounds on race day. We have had a bit of an up-and-down season, but we are in a position to move up in the points with some wins on Sunday. You look at the Top Fuel class and there are a lot of dragsters that are competitive. And I know we are one of those dragsters. We will be ready to show off this DHL dragster. I have a lot of confidence,” Crampton said.
While his Kalitta Motorsports Funny Car colleague JR Todd said this is the time of the season when it gets serious, Crampton said, “This is the time of the season when you really have a lot of fun. You are with your team all the time, and you are constantly at a racetrack. I am excited for the next four races with this DHL Top Fuel team. I think once we get into a really good groove, we will win a lot of rounds on Sunday.”
In 110 starts, Crampton has nine victories, 93 round-wins, and 11 finals.
WEALTH OF WISDOM – Much was made earlier this month about Funny Car’s John Force turning the page on his 60s. But NASCAR pioneer Donnie Allison told Competition Plus while preparing for this year’s 25th anniversary of the Kyle Petty Charity Ride for the Victory Junction Camp, “That ain’t nothin’. You know how old I’ll be in September? 80.” Someone remarked, “That’s young!” Allison said, “I know it! I’m riding a motorcycle across the United States of America.” And he wasn’t the oldest person on his sixth annual bike adventure. Hershel McGriff, who raced last season in a NASCAR K&N West Series race at Tucson Speedway, will be 92 years old this December.
Force, whose next victory will put his career total at 150, said before this race began, “Bottom line, we keep putting ourselves in a position to win. I’m getting more confident every week. I’m using every trick I’ve got to run with these kids, but it’s gonna happen.”
It might have happened already, had it not been for the scorching performance this first third of the season from Force’s teammate, three-time winner Robert Hight, who has stopped Force in the semifinals three times already in 2019. (at Pomona, Gainesville, and Houston).
Force’s most recent victory (his third in six final rounds) at Route 66 Raceway came in 2006.
Allison said, “John Force is a cooooool dude. We’re buddies.”
But inevitably – yes, predictably – when drag racing’s biggest weekend program rolls into Route 66 Raceway, it’s always a fun exercise to celebrate the vitality of two Men of A Certain Age in the Top Fuel class – Chicago residents Chris Karamesines and Luigi Novelli.
Unless he has bribed someone to knock a few years off his official birthdate, Karamesines will be 88 in November, and Novelli will be 77 the next month. So even in this sport that pays no attention to gender, race, or age, Karamesines and Novelli have traded good-natured barbs about the other’s degree of crotchetiness.
Take, for instance, their shtick at the U.S. Nationals in 2016:
Karamesines: We’re just going to try and do our best here and see what happens. As long as we can beat Novelli, we don’t care.”
Competition Plus: Do you really have a rivalry going with Novelli?
Karamesines: Nah. Just his age. He’s just too old to be driving a race car.
Novelli : [With mock annoyance] “I got news for him – he’s ancient. He should have quit 20 years ago. Don’t forget – he started probably 58, ’59. I started by ’61. We go back, you know, a long, long time. But, you know, he’s a little bit older and he’s a little bit, supposedly wiser. I doubt it.
Novelli, owner-driver of the National Machine Repair Dragster, said the two of them poke fun at each other “all the time” and that their silly sniping has been going on for “30 years, maybe 40.” He said,
Is he wiser than Karamesines? Novelli – who described the state of his team as “same old stuff, same old cars, same old Luigi the old guy, same old working, same old everything” – disparaged both of them. He said, “If we were wise, we wouldn’t be doing this and spending all our money.”
JOON TO FOCUS ON CLUTCH – Lex Joon’s “American Dream” tour with crew member wife Gerda has had its flashes of satisfaction and disappointment alike lately. The Dutch Top Fuel owner-driver who’s based in Brownsburg, Ind., qualified 13th at Charlotte, then missed the cut at Richmond. But he said the engine currently in his dragster has had five passes “without any issues.”
He said, “So now it’s all about the clutch, to find the clutch set-up – next step in the program. Coming from Europe, you run a completely different clutch set-up. The tracks here are so much better, so much different. The approach to set up a clutch to it is completely different.
“We’ve got a really big field, 21 Top Fuel cars. So I don’t know if we’re going to qualify. I know we can, but I don’t know if we can get it done in time. We are still in a testing mode. We’re having fun with the fans and everybody.
“I think we’re going to skip the first qualifier and going to start with the second one. It’s nine o’clock at night, so that’s pretty cool. Love it. Then if things work out, we’re probably going to do two on Saturday and see where we stack up and keep going. Just living the dream,” Joon said.
HIGHT EAGER TO REPEAT AT ROUTE 66 – Funny Car points leader Robert Hight is on a tear in his Automobile Club of Southern California Chevy Camaro that few have been able to stop. In eight races, Hight has three victories, one runner-up finish, two semifinal appearances, and five No. 1 qualifiers to lift him to the top of the leaderboard.
He has made few stumbles this year so far. But Ron Capps beat him in a smoky side-by-side pedalfest in the second round at Virginia two weeks ago. Hight has a 19-5 race-day record, so Capps’ advantage was quite a feat (although Tim Wilkerson has handed Hight two of his five round losses).
“We didn’t get this thing in the winner’s circle at Virginia,” Hight said, “but we left with even more of a points lead. So I’m happy with that and with the work my Auto Club guys put in. It was hot out there. The track was hot and we haven’t really seen that since we were in Bristol last year.” He alluded to the weather here in warm, humid Joliet, saying he and his Jimmy Prock-tuned operation is happy to have some data that will help in this string of four races and the Western Swing beyond.
“I’m excited to get back to Chicago. I got my first win at the facility there last year, and I want to get back in that winner’s circle again this year,” Hight said. “This team and Jimmy Prock and Chris Cunningham have put so much into this car, so winning this again and getting our fourth win of the season would be a great way to kick off these back-to-back races.”
THREE CHEERS FOR THE BLACK-AND-GOLD – Ron Capps is hoping his black-and-gold NAPA Brakes-themed Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Funny Car still has the magic. After seizing the provisional top-qualifying position with the only 3.8-second elapsed time (3.893) in Friday’s first session that held up for the provisional No. 1 spot, Capps might have to say it does.
It debuted at the Arby’s Southern Nationals earlier this month at Atlanta. Not only did it wind up in the winners circle, but it also captured the fans’ fancy. With the blessing of NAPA executives, the paint scheme – which was supposed to a special, one-time splash to coincide with NAPA’s month-long May Brakes promotion – the Don Schumacher Racing team took it to the Virginia Nationals. Again Capps won. So the longtime DSR marketing partner became just as curious as Capps and his Rahn Tobler-tuned team just how long the lucky charm would work. After all, it had been with Capps as he turned around a disappointing six-race stretch in which the best he could muster was only one semifinal finish. The back-to-back triumphs vaulted him from ninth place in the Funny Car standings at the end of six races to third.
“After talking to the folks at NAPA, they let us decide if we wanted to continue to run it,” Capps said. “So we let the fans choose on social media if they wanted us to go back to the blue-and-gold car or give it another shot with the NAPA Brakes car. The response was overwhelming.”
The black-and-gold theme is back as 2016 series champion Capps seeks his 63rd overall Funny Car victory. The Virginia victory gave him No. 30 with Tobler tuning.
Capps sent “a huge thank-you to our NAPA Nation NHRA fans for weighing-in. Ultimately, the general consensus was that they wanted us to bring the black-and-gold car out, so we’ll see if we can get it in the winner’s circle again and keep the streak alive.”
With three more victories, Capps would tie DSR colleague Antron Brown’s 66 overall victories. Brown is seventh on the sport’s all-time victories list.
Capps, a two-time winner at Route 66 Raceway and last year’s Funny Car runner-up, said, “Obviously, we couldn’t be happier with where we are at this point in the season. We’ve made a big jump in the Mello Yello points, and we’re going to keep chugging away and making up ground toward the teams that are ranked ahead of us.”
NAPA’s May Brakes promotion was scheduled to run from May 1 through May 31. But like it extended the life of Capps’ livery, it extended the promotion whereby customers can get a $75 pre-paid VISA card with a qualifying NAPA Brake parts purchase of $250 or more at participating NAPA AUTO PARTS stores and/or NAPA AutoCare Centers. Participating NAPA AutoCare Centers has continued the offer until the end of June.
Shawn Langdon had the Funny Car class’ best speed in qualifying Friday with a 327.90 pass. The Kalitta Motorsports Toyota Camry tandem of JR Todd and Langdon were second and third, respectively, in the tentative order, with Todd at 3.907 in the DHL entry and Langdon at 3.938 in the Global Electronic Technology car.
HOMESTATE HERO – Tim Wilkerson considers Route 66 Raceway one of his two “home tracks,” along with World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway downstate at Madison, Ill. And he said he would love to shine here, for sure – in front of his Wilk’s Warriors cheering section.
“It would be really cool to do something good this weekend in Chicago. We're racing just a couple of hours away from home,” the No. 8-ranked Funny Car driver said. “And we'll have a ton of people out there on Saturday from Levi, Ray and Shoup, plus friends and family and all kinds of folks, so [it’s] a real neat deal.”
So is his new Ford Mustang Funny Car body. The Springfield, Ill., veteran said he’s “feeling pretty good about” the new body that made its first appearance at Richmond. He said, “We were almost as fast as anybody out there in Virginia, so I think we're doing pretty good with it, and I'd like to see us put it in the winner's circle before too long for Ford, LRS, Summit Racing, and all those folks who are out there supporting us week in and week out.”
LRS has partnered with Wilkerson for 20 years, making it the one of the longest sponsorships in the sport.
“I'm pretty optimistic about this new car and what we can do with it. It's solid,” Wilkerson said. “We'll see. The big thing is that we have to keep our heads on straight. If we can do that and make it go again, I think we'll be in good shape."
Wilkerson earned his first national-event victory in a Funny Car here at Route 66 Raceway in 1999. He defeated John Force that day. This year, he has reached the final round at Gainesville, Las Vegas, and Atlanta.
DOING PATRIOTIC DUTY – Jeff Arend, subbing at this race for Jonnie Lindberg in the Jim Head Racing Ford, was the 2012 winner here at the Route 66 Nationals. He said because he has been driving the Don Nelson-owned, Ronnie Swearingen-tuned California Hustler Nostalgia Funny Car he shouldn’t be too rusty this weekend. The San Dimas, Calif., veteran is used to pinch-hitting and could earn his career fifth Funny Car victory on a track he said is “a great track” that’s “smooth and has plenty of shut-down.”
It doesn’t hurt that Lindberg reached the semifinals in the most recent event, near Richmond, Va., in this same Mustang. With his own personality in tune with Head’s, Arend told NHRA.com’s Kevin McKenna, the opportunity “is pretty exciting.”
He said, “When teams are looking for a driver, it’s nice to know that I’m at or near the top of the list. As a driver, you really just want the respect of the crew chiefs and team owners that you work with, and of course your fellow drivers. To get a call from someone like Jim Head is very cool. We’ve talked many times over the years, and I think we get along very well. We’re both pretty direct and to the point. I’m looking forward to seeing what we can do together” in his first Mello Yello Drag Racing Series race this year.
Lindberg, meanwhile, will be on a momentous mission of his own. He’s back in his native Sweden, undergoing the process to obtain a so-called “green card,” a Permanent Resident Card, that will allows him to live and work permanently in the U.S. Lindberg said, “My goal is to ultimately become a United States citizen, and this is an important step in that process. I bought a house in Brownsburg (Ind.) this year and my business, Jonnie Lindberg Performance, is based there. This is home for me now.
“For the last couple of years, ever since I first came to the United States to race my alcohol car, I’ve been in the process of securing a green card. My application has been processed, and I’m just waiting for the next step, which is a formal interview. I went to the U.S. Embassy in Stockholm last week to fill out some paperwork,” he told McKenna. “And they have my passport. So I’m not able to leave the country until after we have the interview.”
By the time the qualifying fields are set here Saturday, Lindberg should be finished with his interview in Sweden.
Lindberg said he, Head, and Arend have been making arrangements for this situation for about a month. He said Head recognizes the significance of this move for Lindberg and is supportive. He said he believes Arend “will do a great job.”
The plan is for Lindberg to be back at the dragstrip June 7-9 for the Menard’s Heartland Park Nationals at Topeka, tuning Brian Hough’s Top Alcohol Funny Car. He’ll return to Head’s car at the mid-June Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol, Tenn. “By then, I should have all this immigration stuff handled,” Lindberg said.
He’s following the path Top Fuel racers Lex Joon (The Netherlands) and Richie Crampton (Australia) took. Crampton became a naturalized U.S. citizen several years ago.
COUGHLIN & CHICAGO = EXCITING WEEKEND – With six victories, Jeg Coughlin has won here more than any other pro driver. And it was here last season that the Delaware, Ohio, racer snapped the longest winless streak of his career and started a run that left him just one spot short of a sixth national Pro Stock championship. Coughlin’s 62nd overall victory, in February at Phoenix in Race No. 2 of the season, made him the only other driver to win this season besides Bo Butner.
"I told Bo the other day it's got to be my turn again," Coughlin, driver of the JEGS.com Elite Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro, said, joking. "We've had a bit of a feast-or-famine year so far. We got that win in Phoenix early on, and we certainly felt like we did coming out of here last year. But then we had a couple of untimely early-round losses and came back down to Earth.
"We did have a good run in Virginia, and the car right now is absolutely fantastic. The crew is working hard. Rickie [crew chief Jones] and the rest of the crew chiefs at Elite are way further ahead with the Rick Jones chassis than we were a year ago. So I feel strongly we can challenge for the No. 1 qualifying spot and a win this weekend."
Coughlin said, "Last year's Chicago race certainly marked a huge turnaround for us. We're all very much hoping to defend our Chicago title and start another big run. There's no reason to think we can't do it."
This weekend Coughlin will be a bit overwhelmed with information to absorb. Besides his own Pro Stock affairs, he’ll be engaged with what’s going on in the annual JEGS Allstars race that’s scheduled for Saturday – and he’ll be following the Memorial PGA Tournament at Muirfield Village Golf Club at Dublin, Ohio.
"We have a lot of pride in our hometown, and it's always neat to see the pros playing the course you grew up on. I had a chance to play it last Friday, the final day before they shut it down for all the final preparations for the PGA event, and it's in perfect shape. I plan to take a peek [at the TV coverage] whenever I get a minute,” he said.
"I'll definitely be watching the JEGS Allstars also. You've got the best Sportsman drivers from the NHRA's seven geographical areas battling head-to-head in 10 different classes. And then you add in the team aspect, and it's one of the most unique experiences you'll ever have. You end up paying attention to every driver and every class, because you're pulling like crazy for your home division to win the team trophy and the camaraderie makes it so special, especially in a sport where you're usually on your own."
ENDERS KNOWS THE FEELING, WANTS IT BACK – Erica Enders knows how it feels to be in Bo Butner’s place. She has gone through exhilarating stretches in which she virtually does nothing wrong in her race car. This isn’t one of those times. But she wants to get back to that spot again and slow Butner’s roll. Like just about everybody else in the Pro Stock class, Enders is still seeking her first victory of the year. The Melling Performance / Elite Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro driver wouldn’t mind getting it at Route 66 Raceway, where she carved her name into the drag-racing history book as the first female to win in the class. She has 23 altogether now, but she wants that 24th in a big way.
“When things cycle in your favor, you have to take advantage,” Enders said. “Once you get it, it’s also hard to keep it. You have to be as prepared as possible, the tune-up has to be spot on, and you have to be driving well. There’s no room for error, but that’s what attracts me to Pro Stock, and I think we have a team that’s capable. But you have to capitalize when the chances are there. You have to grab it and try not to let it go and treat every round like a final round.”
Enders reached the semifinal twice this year, but she’s used to achieving much more. A victory would be her first in more than a year.
“I just want to get back to where I’m bulletproof and confident in myself and my equipment,” Enders said. “I hate the lack of performance from me this year and that’s something I have to get under wraps. As a whole, we just have to race like we know how to race. That’s our goal for Chicago and I’m confident we can do it.”
She’s sixth in the lineup after two Friday sessions with two more scheduled runs that give her a chance to improve.