2019 NHRA SONOMA NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
TORRENCE WINS TOP IN SONOMA BUT THIS TIME IT'S BILLY - Another week – another win for the Torrence family in Top Fuel.
In an NHRA Mello Yello Series dominated by Top Fuel driver Steve Torrence, who has eight wins, his father Billy has also added two wins of his own in the Capco family-owned dragster.
The elder Torrence’s most recent win came Sunday when he was crowned the champion at the Sonoma (Calif.) Nationals.
Billy clocked a 3.804-second elapsed time at 320.20 mph to defeat Clay Millican’s 3.842-second lap at 321.65 mph.
“We had a good car going into race day,” Billy said. “We raced what the race track would give us. We made the right calls and we had a really tough race against Steve. I think they had a little difficulty going down and we were fortunate to be ahead when the win light came on. We do race heads up. How are you going to brag if you didn’t race heads up? There will be a little bragging going on (Monday), very little. We will have our ritual (Monday) going to eat Mexican food and I think Steve will pay. Then, we will be at work.”
Billy knocked off Steve Faria, Austi Prock, his son, Steve and then Millican Sunday. This was Billy’s third career Top Fuel Wally. He won in Phoenix earlier this season.
Steve, who had been to nine consecutive finals rounds before Sunday, and Billy have combined to win 10 of the 15 NHRA national events this season.
“We knew Clay had a good car, and I needed to go up there and be on time,” Billy said. “I was a little later than I wanted to be, and I thought we had a good even car to run what we ran, and it took it all.”
Billy, although he has only been running a limited schedule, has a great opportunity to finish in the Top 10 in the season points and qualify for the six-race Countdown to the Championship.
However, making the Countdown isn’t high on Billy’s list.
“We didn’t come into this year to really go to the Top 10, we just came out to have fun,” Billy said. “We are a test team for the ‘A’ car (Steve’s). We are not going to the next race (in Seattle, Aug. 2-4), but we will be in Brainerd, Minn., (Aug. 16-18) and Indy and we will just see how the cards fall there. We have a good car and we are capable of winning anywhere we go.”
Getting to race against his son, Steve, the reigning Top Fuel world champion, is something Billy doesn’t take for granted.
“We are very blessed to get to race against each other, that’s special, but when we do get out there, it doesn’t really matter who is over there (in the other lane),” Billy said. “Everything I know, Steve taught me to do this. He’s going to take my head off and vice versa. When you have a kid, who has won 35 (Top Fuel) races, the bragging rights are trimmed down substantially. I may needle him a little bit, but I can’t say too much. The bottom line is I couldn’t do this without Steve’s team, Richard Hogan, Bobby and Dom Lagana, Walt and Jake and the guys who work on my car. It takes all those guys and they make certain that I have a very well-prepared car every time I show up. They make me look good, so I’m not going to toot the horn too much.
We are the type of people who really don’t plan, we just do. We pop up and look around from time to time and we have to pinch ourselves and we are humbled by the success we have had. We have been very blessed. It’s really something to have the success we’ve had and be the only family race team on the property at that level.” Tracy Renck
MEMORIES MOTIVATE HIGHT TO 50TH WIN - There was a time when Robert Hight looked at Sonoma Raceway just like it was Dodger Stadium. The facility looked pristine, and the players were larger than life.
Hight was like the kid who had aspirations of playing big-league ball but as hard as he tried couldn’t get any traction on the sandlot. All the kid from Alturas, Ca., needed was a chance.
“The first national event I ever attended was right here whenever this place opened, and I’ve been to every single race as a fan, a crew member and now a driver,” Hight recalled as he walked into the media center following his monumental victory at Sunday’s NHRA Sonoma Nationals, his fifth 2019 victory.
Hight captured his 50th career NHRA national event victory in 15 years of racing Funny Car, by beating Matt Hagan.
“Never honestly dreamed I would get to drive a Funny Car,” Hight said. “When I first saw these cars run I’d gone to Sacramento. It was called the Governor’s Cup, it was a race they had there and believe it or not it was John Force and Jim Dunn in the Fireman’s Quickie (the name of his car). I saw these cars run and I was like, “My God, these are superheroes. No one could drive a car that accelerates and goes that fast. It just blew me away.”
Hight, an admitted small-town boy, saw Funny Car racing as a larger than life experience, reserved for those who could only do things not humanly possible.
The one opportunity enabled Hight to slip into the realm of what some have called larger than life.
But don’t take our word for it, check the stats. In the decade and a half Hight has barnstormed the NHRA drag racing tour, he’s amassed 490 round wins, and already holds a 34-10 win/loss record this season. Not a bad feat for a kid who once dreamed of wiping slicks, and inevitably driving a race car.
Not only did Hight win his 50th race, but also took home the victory in the 50th anniversary of Sonoma Raceway.
“It’s a milestone,” Hight declared. “If you look at the guys who have raced funny car, there’s a lot of big names: Kenny Bernstein, Don Prudhomme, the guys that when I was a kid, I watched on tv and they don’t have 50 wins in a funny car. That’s amazing. Hard to believe.”
For all of the bravado which comes from winning a monumental event, Hight believes the misnomer he and crew chief Jimmy Prock put to bed in today’s less than conducive conditions made the most significant statement.
“We went into Denver, and we did test some stuff last week in the Western Swing, the beginning of it,” Hight explained. “It didn’t go as well as we wanted on Friday, so we went back to basics on Saturday. Number one qualifier there and went to the semis. Come here, and I know there’s a lot of critics that say “well Jimmy Prock and his team can only run when it’s great conditions, and you can throw down and run big numbers.”
“But I think today we proved that on a 130-degree track for three rounds that we could slug it out with anybody.”
And in one fell moment, Hight looked out to the room full of gathered media, and immediately the moment became overwhelming. He went back to 1988 in his mind, the first year NHRA brought their national event tour to Sonoma.
“That would’ve been my first year out of high school,” Hight said. “I remember coming down here and spending three days and getting out here whenever they opened the gates and not leaving until o’ dark-thirty because I just wanted to see everything. I wanted to take it all in.”
Hight took it all in again on Sunday.; He also took it all home, too. Bobby Bennett
ANDERSON STILL ALIVE FOR WESTERN SWING SWEEP - Pro Stock veteran Greg Anderson is on an island of his own. Not only did Anderson score career victory No. 93, but has ensured going into this weekend’s NHRA Nationals in Seattle; he’s the only professional drag racer capable of sweeping the heralded Western Swing.
Don’t think for a moment, the driver who has virtually claimed every accolade in the factory hot rod division isn’t “having a moment” at the prospect of becoming the only Pro Stock driver who has swept the swing twice.
“I’ll go into Seattle with a smile on my face, eager to race, and see if the cards fall the right way again,” Anderson said. “I had a lot of luck today, don’t get me wrong, and it takes a lot of luck to win one of these events. I didn’t make the big mistake, and other people did. Someway, I found my way to the winner’s circle.”
The peculiar aspect of Anderson’s so-called luck, is the luckier he gets, the better he races. Sunday in Sonoma, Anderson, who ranks second in the championship point standings, took out No. 1 qualifier Alex Laughlin for the monumental victory.
Anderson’s Denver victory marked his first win in a calendar year. Even the most seasoned drivers can fall victim to doubt.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve won two races in a row,” Anderson explained. “It seems like forever when you have a gap like that for a year in between race wins. You start to doubt yourself. You start to wonder if you can still do this stuff. If you can still win. I’ve told everybody that’s ever asked the question, I’m certainly getting up there in age right now, and I don’t know how much longer I can keep doing this.
“My answer is to them; I’ll do it until I can’t win anymore. Then you start wondering when you can’t win, win for a year at a time, should I be doing this. Should I turn the steering wheel over to somebody else? It’s just like any major league sport. It’s more mind game than anything.”
Anderson understands those mind games can put a train back on the tracks.
“This is going to do a lot for me,” Anderson admitted. “Not only winning last week but winning two weeks in a row, like I said , it’s been a long time since I’ve done that and not only has it proved to me that I can still do it, but it tells you that you still want to do it and how much fun it is and why you do it.
“That confidence just goes a long, long ways. All the years that I’ve been out here, the glory years I’ve had, the big years I’ve had, you have things happen during the day where somehow you’ve gotten in people’s heads. I had that happen today. I had two people that would have been great races, and things went wrong. I got basically a gimme. That hasn’t happened since those glory years since we were able to dominate. Something different has happened since Denver, and we got confidence back, and people see that, and it helped me win today.” Bobby Bennett
HINES’ INCREDIBLE PSM SEASON CONTINUES IN SONOMA - The amazing 2019 NHRA Mello Yello Series Pro Stock Motorcycle season for Andrew Hines got even better this weekend at the Sonoma (Calif.) Nationals.
Hines, a five-time world champion, (2004-2006, 2014-15), won the $25,000 Mickey Thompson Pro Bike Battle Saturday.
For his encore Sunday, Hines took home the title at the Sonoma Nationals.
Hines, riding his Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson, clocked a 6.790-second elapsed time at 198.00 mph to edge reigning world champion Matt Smith’s 6.822-second lap un the finals.
“This weekend was absolutely phenomenal,” Hines said. “My Harley-Davidson FXDR, since we built it, the chassis that’s underneath that body, the work over the offseason and then wrapped that with the FXDR body work in Denver, it is a package made to perform. It rides so nice. It is built to fit all of us, and the original body was built to fit me, and we accommodate for Eddie (Krawiec) and Angelle (Sampey). It is absolutely mind-boggling what we have been able to achieve this year. I feel I’m riding the best I ever had in my career.”
Hines admitted the rivalry between he and Matt Smith is real.
“We are cordial when we need to be, but we are not friends by any means,” Hines said. “I was playing games with him on the starting line (Saturday) and we might think about each other every day because we probably don’t really like each other. It is one that has brewed from early on in my career back when he was running a Suzuki and I was new to the Harley deal. We had a really bad burn down back in Memphis years ago and he got the best of me a few times on picking those wins off on the starting line.
It’s something that has evolved as he has got better in his program, his bike has become more competitive and you want to beat the best. We trade that back and forth now and then. We are not sending each other Christmas cards. When need be, we can talk and sort things out if it is class-related. But, when we are on the starting line, the game’s off. It is time to go.”
Hines has won, a career-season best seven races this year and he has appeared in eight finals in nine races this season.
After going winless in 2018, Hines has been dominant this season, counting the Mickey Thompson Pro Bike Battle, he has a 32-2 elimination round record.
“I have been fortunate to win seven of those Pro Bike Battles, so many things have happened in my career that I wasn’t able to parlay my Saturday win into Sunday,” Hines said. “To get that at this point in my career after the struggle I had last year with not a single win, it’s just a testament to how much my crew had faith in me. I was kind of ready to hang up my racing boots at the end of last year and they pretty much wouldn’t take no for an answer. They said you’re better than this and let’s go out here and end your career on a better note.
I’m not saying it is over right now, when we get to the end of the year, we will re-evaluate and see what’s going on. It’s fantastic. The guys at Vance & Hines pushing through and making parts and our support from Harley-Davidson, the product development center and the marketing developing team at Harley-Davidson, we are bringing the FXDR to the front and showing people what you can buy on the street, we can take that and make that into a cool race bike.”
Since debut of the FXDR body for the Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson team at the Mile-High Nationals in Denver last weekend, Hines has a 11-0 record in elimination rounds.
This was Hines’ 55th career national event win since he made his PSM debut at the Mile-High Nationals in 2002. His victory parade Sunday consisted of wins over Kelly Clontz, Scotty Pollacheck, Jerry Savoie and then Smith.
“I’m able to roll through eliminations and the confidence I have in my team and the level of performance and the perfection our guys bring to the starting line every single time is unsurpassed right now,” said Hines, who has a commanding lead in the points standings. “I told them at the end of the track, you guys make my job so much easier. I can sit at the starting line with confidence and hopefully see a win light. It’s unreal. I can’t believe it.” Tracy Renck
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK - IT'S RACE DAY, KINDA SORTA
HIGHLY FAVORED - Races within a race seem to work in Andrew Hines’ favor.
Hines, a five-time world champion, (2004-2006, 2014-15), won his seventh all-star event, taking the title at the Mickey Thompson Pro Bike Battle at the Sonoma (Calif.) Nationals Saturday.
Hines clocked a 6.912-second elapsed time at 193.24 mph to defeat Eddie Krawiec’s 7.016-second lap in the finals.
“(Saturday) was hot,” Hines said. “It was a big change over (Friday). You’re putting leathers on up there and it doesn’t quite slide around like it does when it’s a nice 75 degrees. This weekend, knowing we had these conditions coming in here, we had a tune-up we knew we could expect to rely on and luckily my guys they work really hard in the heat and they work really hard in the cold. They just make sure is as right as it could possibly be.”
Prior to ousting his Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson teammate Eddie Krawiec in the finals, Hines beat Hector Arana Jr. and Matt Smith.
The 2019 Mickey Thompson Pro Bike Battle pitted the top eight riders in the class competing against each other for a $25,000 prize. Matt Smith won the Mickey Thompson Pro Bike Battle a year ago.
“Racing through this year and racing here at the Mickey Thompson Pro Bike Battle, I had my focus on,” Hines said. “This is one of those events, I’ve always been the guys to put too much pressure on myself, earlier in my career, thinking about what could we win today? Now, you take the points out of the equation and it always kind of worked out for me and it was no different (Saturday).
I treated it like qualifying rounds, and it is just cool that your win light comes on and you get to celebrate because of it. I thank Mickey Thompson for supporting this Pro Bike Battle the last three years. It has been phenomenal. They are great partner for the entire class. They do so much great promotion for us and we are just able to pay back the favor with whatever we can. I put a brand-new Mickey Thompson tire on my Harley this weekend just to get it groomed in through qualifying and I knew I needed as much traction (Saturday) as possible for the heat and it worked out great. I’m just riding the wave.”
The tire flip to pick the pairings for the Mickey Thompson Pro Bike Battle is something Hines enjoyed.
“That was fun,” Hines said. “It wasn’t something where you’re sitting back at home looking at points throughout these coming races and seeing where everybody was going to land and who you were going to qualify against. There’s was no pressure until that moment when you flipped that tire. I flipped four and then Hector (Arana) Jr. comes out and flips four right next to me. Well, here we go. He ran 200 mph first, so you can’t take him lightly. It was a fun deal. The class got together with NHRA and figured out what we could do different. Mickey Thompson was on board with it to try something new and maybe something to come. We might do something different next year come this Battle. We might try something a little more in your face.”
Hines performance Saturday is a microcosm of his season. He has won six races this season and has appeared in seven finals in eight races this season.
After going winless in 2018, Hines has been dominant this season, counting the Mickey Thompson Pro Bike Battle, he has a 28-2 elimination round record. Hines has beat Krawiec six times in the finals this season.
“I’m rooting for him as much as I’m rooting for myself,” Hines said about racing Krawiec. “I want our Harleys as fast and formidable as possible. We got mine right there and his is just that one little tick off and we keep kicking ourselves because we can’t find it. We are going to tear these bikes apart the next couple of hours and try and make sure he’s on par for (Sunday).”
Since debut of the FXDR body for the Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson team at the Mile-High Nationals in Denver last weekend, Hines has a 7-0 record in elimination rounds.
“We never stop tinkering,” Hines said. “They never go down the track the same one run to the next. We will look at the weather for (Sunday) and it looks like it is going to be a fair bit cooler, six to seven degrees, which is big in the engine aspect of the thing and we will just pick away at it a little bit more. We still have really good notes for these conditions if you look at Richmond (Va.) and Chicago where we were going fast and had these types of conditions. The bad thing here (in Sonoma) is that darn wind. You can be leaving your trailer with a tailwind and you roll into the staging lanes around the corner and it is a head wind in your face. It is hard to change gearing in a real hurry.”
THAT DID THE TRICK - Matt Smith fussed and pleaded with the NHRA regarding their decision to declare the dimpled belly pan on his one-year-old EBR body illegal and to give him one more race to come into compliance. His pleas fell on deaf ears.
It turns out, it didn’t make a difference, as Smith on the first run with a flat belly pan established a Sonoma track record with a 6.779 elapsed time, at 200.83 miles per hour.
One racer who was not surprised that Smith’s EBR-bodied bike ran that quick, is ironically the one who sold him the package - Hector Arana.
“I don’t think there’s any advantage of those dimples on the belly pan, especially if it doesn’t see the front area of the wind,” Arana said. “Some people started complaining, a team, we don’t know who but it doesn’t matter.”
Arana, just like Smith, has no problem with NHRA adjusting the rules. As he sees it, this is their job to maintain what they feel is a level playing field. It’s just the hardship he believes the tech department put on the teams with the rigid mandate which has him scratching his head.
“It’s NHRA’s house, and we play in their house, so no matter what we tried to talk to them, visit them,” Arana explained. “Especially if we would have had instead of a mandate right now, have a new belly pan for Indy it would have been easier because we didn’t have enough time. We got the letter on Sunday. Nothing you can do on Sunday, and we race on Friday, so all you have is four days to make something happen.”
Arana said his team’s drive from Denver to Sonoma is an inevitable two-day journey, which didn’t leave much time to craft a new carbon fiber replacement.
Thanks to Mark Kirkman, Arana had a replacement delivered.
“I called him on Sunday, [when he heard the rumors] so he said ‘Let me know what’s going to happen.”
“We were still waiting for a decision, a final decision, and when we heard that they were not going to give in, I called him back. He had some laser cut and overnighted over here.”
Arana said he’s not sold on the dimpled belly pan providing an aerodynamic advantage.
“I started making phone calls to people who know about aerodynamics, and they assured me it’s not doing anything for me,” Arana explained.
Arana believes it will be business as usual for the Buells.
“This is not going to slow us down,” Arana said. “This doesn’t do anything. So I am confident about that.”
LEADERBOARD UNCHANGED - Clay Millican (Top Fuel), Robert Hight (Funny Car) Alex Laughlin (Pro Stock) and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) qualified No. 1 in their respective categories at the 15th of 24 races during the 2019 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season. The event is also the second of three races during the NHRA’s famed Western Swing.
IT’S GONNA BE FAST - There was a time last season when NHRA was prepared to begin testing to create the semblance of a plan to return to the traditional quarter-mile nitro racing distance. The plan fell apart, and not much was done to revive the idea.
When Del Worsham visited Qatar during the off-season, he decided to attempt to run a quarter-mile in his Funny Car for Sheik Khalid and the Qatar Race Club.
“I wanted to go 300mph pretty bad over there,” Worsham admitted. “I felt like it would be kind of a cool thing to do. The problem I had was that they didn’t have 1,000-foot speed cones. They were only at a quarter-mile and an eighth-mile. I couldn’t run 300-mph in an eighth-mile so to run 300mph in a quarter I had to drive it past the normal 1,000-foot, which I did and shut it off and got it to 304mph.
“When I shut it off, and I pulled the parachutes, it decelerated fast before the quarter-mile. I was scared I didn’t make it, but luckily we did.”
Worsham ran a 4.821 elapsed time while coasting to 304 miles per hour. He admitted the extra 320 feet might as well have been another 660.
“When we first went to 1,000-foot your time clock in your brain was quarter-mile, so we fought shutting off at 1,000-foot because it just wasn’t the right place to shut off,” Worsham explained. “We’re more than ten years into 1,000-foot now, and your body has adjusted and the time clock in your brain has. So now to go quarter-mile, you know where 1,000-foot is, you just leave your foot down.
“It’s a long ways. It’s fast, and the car is going really fast, and it’s revved up, and they’re really not tuned or setup to go quarter-mile, so I was kind of doing something it wasn’t really set up to do.”
Those extra 320 feet can make or break a fuel car.
“Even though it’s only 320-feet and it’s only a little over one second in actual time, you’re going very fast and your covering distance about 300-feet a second,” Worsham said. “It’s quite a bit, so it is a long ways. I was just exhibition running. I wasn’t trying to race. I wasn’t trying to push the limits or do anything further than I thought I could get away with so I really wasn’t too worried about it. If I was racing and going a quarter-mile, having to push it that far in this day and age, it would be a different story.
That’s why when Worsham heard the rumor of NHRA considering returning to quarter-mile at select events, he immediately had more questions than answers.
“I was thinking to myself, ‘How are we going to do that in this day and age?” Worsham recalled. “I believe these cars will run 340 mph to 350 mph probably and I’m not sure if there’s an easy way to make them not do that or if we don’t want to do that. If we’re going to race, I like opening up the rules and going fast and running things to the limits. To run a car to its limits at a quarter-mile is going to be very, very fast, so it’s going to have to be some pumped down version of what we do today.
“I believe with track prep and bodies and knowledge and abilities and just evolution in general, I don’t think going 312mph in a quarter-mile would be as exciting as going 300mph at the eighth.”
The only way quarter-mile racing would work in today’s current nitro world is a restrictor plate kind of competition.
“If you want to use that word,” Worsham added. “It would definitely be restricted racing for drag racing. However, they wanted to do it. But again, once you open up the door, the things we know today and even if you went to a four-disc clutch, there are ways to beat all these things today, and we’ve all learned. We’re ten years down the road and 40-years in lock-up clutches, 45 years into Billet heads.
“There are some smart people out here, and that’s a long time. If we go quarter-mile racing, I can promise you it’s going to be fast.”
SIXTH IS THE CHARM? - Greg Anderson’s five Sonoma Raceway wins top the successes of all other Pro Stock drivers there. This track record places Anderson as one of just three drivers across all Pro categories to have five or more national event wins in California wine country (John Force has 8 in Funny Car, Doug Kalitta has five in Top Fuel)
Additionally, Anderson is the only Pro Stock driver to have ever swept the Western Swing by winning Denver, Sonoma, and Seattle. He accomplished the feat in 2004. Only seven Mello Yello Series and one Lucas Oil Series drivers have ever done it.
Anderson believes there’s more of the same ahead.
“Sonoma Raceway is one of my favorite racetracks,” Anderson admitted. “We got off to a slow start this year, but we got that break in the schedule, and it seems like that gave Team Summit a chance to make a gain.
“All of our Chevy Camaros are strong in the KB Racing camp; they’re all capable of winning every race we go to nowadays, so we’re pretty happy with that. It’s going to be an exciting rest of the season.”
WILK’S WORLD IN SONOMA - Tim Wilkerson is just one of five Funny Car drivers to have more than one win at Sonoma Raceway. He’s recorded wins in 2004 and 2009.
Wilkerson entered this weekend No. 10 in the Funny Car standings.
“The next two races will be tricky when it’s hot out,” Wilkerson said. “Sonoma and Seattle are pretty similar, but Sonoma gives you one really good shot at being a hero at night. The rest of the time, usually, the sun is out and keeping the track hot. We’ve won here a few times, beat Tony Pedregon here and in Seattle once two weeks in a row – that’s a favorite Sonoma memory. He had a good car, Dickie Venables was tuning it, and everybody knows Dickie Venables is a pain in the ass. It was fun.”
OLD BO, NEW TRICKS - Bo Butner has been racing Super Gas this weekend for the first time in a roadster that he purchased from West Coast racer Aaron Kinard. It is the same equipment in which Kinard finished No. 2 in the nation last season.
By the time Pro Stock qualifying ended on Saturday afternoon, Butner was already into the third round courtesy of a strong win against Ted Seiple.
“This is a new venture in life,” Butner explained. “I’ve wanted to do some more bracket racing – some of my friends put on big bracket races, and I want to be part of it. So, I bought kind of, a whole team. I have no clue what I’m doing, but hopefully, I’ll learn, and we’ll go from there.
“Before this weekend, I’d never driven a roadster in my life. The first time I was in the car was for the first time-trial. I knew this is a very good car, and I’ve had a lot of people helping me: Justin Lamb, Kyle Seipel, Jimmy DeFrank. They’re all happy for me because we have fun racing together. This is still fun for us.
“It’s the same Tree we hit in Pro Stock, and I want to study and be better. Whatever I can do to see the Tree as many times as I can.”
RIGHT TIME RIGHT PLACE MOMENT - It wasn’t the perfect start to the NHRA Western Swing for Jeg Coughlin Jr. But the five-time world champion in Pro Stock likes how his season is coming together at an ideal time.
Coughlin has advanced to the semifinals at three of the past four races, including last weekend in Denver. He will begin his defense of his NHRA Sonoma Nationals title from the third position on the elimination grid after an impressive four rounds of qualifying, highlighted by a Friday evening pass of 6.533 seconds at 210.41 mph.
Three of Coughlin’s four qualifying passes in his JEGS.com Elite Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro earned him bonus points as they were ranked among the top three of the session. That sort of consistency, when coupled with Coughlin’s reliable driving skills, is what helps win races.
“We definitely made four good, quality runs in qualifying here and we’re excited about race day,” Coughlin said. “In Q4 we ended up being off by just a tick, but it’s nothing to be concerned about as Rickie (Jones, crew chief) and the guys were just trying some things in the heat.
“We’ll go over everything with a fine-tooth comb and get set for another hot day tomorrow. I believe we got a really good taste of the conditions we’ll face on race day with the intense sun and hot track temps we experienced today. We’ll tune off the pass we made this afternoon in Q3 and work from there.”
Aside from last year’s victory here, Coughlin was also the Sonoma champ in 2003 and 2010.
For the second consecutive Sunday, Coughlin will open elimination action opposite Fernando Cuadra Jr., who qualified 14th overall with a 6.583 at 209.26 mph. In two meetings this year, Coughlin has mastered the rookie on both occasions.
“There are certainly no gimmes in Pro Stock, so we’ll need to be up and ready for Round 1,” Coughlin said. “Our confidence level is good. We’re very happy with the tuning package, and I was pleased with my driving in qualifying. It’s time to get aggressive because we’re moving to race day. I want to get up on the wheel, give good feedback to my guys, and see if we can’t earn some more win lights.
“If you look at the schedule, we only have a few races left before we reset for the Countdown to the Championship playoffs, so we’ve talked about erring on the aggressive side with all the elements of having the car prepared. It’s ‘go time’ from here on in. It feels just like the big-dog bracket races we’ve been attending where you need to be near-perfect every time up there to be successful.”
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK – IT’S A GREAT DAY FOR A WINE COUNTRY SHOWDOWN
WHAT A DIFFERENCE A DECADE MAKES - When Clay Millican won his first national event in 2000 while racing IHRA, he was as wet behind the ears as any rookie could be.
Millican won his first-ever Top Fuel event in 2000, beating veteran Shirley Muldowney to win the IHRA Canadian Nationals in Grand Bend, Ont. The sophomore driver was under the tutelage of tuner Mike Kloeber, a wrench-turner who came up on the rough side of the tracks in nitro racing.
"Mike was my teacher," Millican said. "Through all of my IHRA racing, a lot of NHRA racing, I had Mike. So essentially he taught me everything and I’ve heard him say this a thousand times, "The only thing I’ve ever staged is my foot."
Kloeber had grown up around nitro racing, and his teacher was not the coddling type. He learned the ropes under the legendary Jerry "The King" Ruth. Kloeber would later gain his crew chief credentials under another tough customer, Don "The Snake" Prudhomme.
Together, Millican and Kloeber amassed 51 wins from 2000 - 2006, and six consecutive Top Fuel championships in their reign of dominance in IHRA.
At the end of the 2006 season, then team owner Evan Knoll, who purchased the team from Peter Lehman in 2005, fired Kloeber. Kloeber found a few gigs afterward, but none really turned into a program comparable with what he'd had for the previous decade.
Almost thirteen years later, the brothers in spirit found themselves together when tuner David Grubnic departed at the end of 2018. Millican describes the reunion as magical.
"Mike was out of racing for eight years, and we were in need of a crew chief," Millican said. "The moment we went to the race track in Phoenix and he rolled me forward into the beams for the very first time for him in eight years, it was kind of cool. They put that photo on the front of the National Dragster of him pulling me in the beams, there was a grin on my face from ear to ear, because it’s like seeing your brother you hadn’t seen in a long time.
"To have that helmet on and for him to be the one pulling me forward, it just made me feel good. It made me smile. I didn’t care what the car did."
After losing in the first round at the first two events, Millican and Kloeber have managed two final round finishes plus a couple of final-four appearances in the four-wide events.
'As the year went it was like we picked up exactly where we were," Millican said.
However, the Millican Kloeber tuned for this time was not the same one he left.
"I was like the little brother that had always 100% did whatever the big brother said, I did," Millican explained. "Well, with that little break we took, it was like the little brother – being me – went off to college and I got many more years of driving without Mike being there.
"When he came back and once we started getting a few runs under our belt, he said, “Hey, I like how you’re doing that. Why are you doing this when we used to do it like this?”
Seeing his "little brother" develop into a tuner's driver is something Kloeber feels was incredibly important to helping them to advance to the next level.
"He's more dedicated; If that’s possible," Kloeber said. "He’s more dedicated today to be the best driver he can be than he was when we were together the first time. Clay’s clearly a better driver today. Better on the starting line than he ever has been in years past, so all that work he’s doing off the track is paying off.
"I’d really like to think that all of those things that I shared with him about how other drivers that I’d worked for were successful in their racing careers. He’s largely adopted all those best practices. It’s great to see him having grown, matured and a much more capable person today than when we were first together in 1999."
Millican isn't the only one who changed. Kloeber did a bit of adjusting of his own. Sitting on the sidelines for nearly a decade because of the opinion he was too tough to work for, Millican believes perception isn't always reality.
"Mike 100% should have never been out of racing," Millican explained. "He’s one of the greatest minds out here. His knock out here was he was rough on people and probably was a little bit, but he came from the old school of racing.
"Mike and I continued to communicate even though he wasn’t my crew chief. He essentially got pushed out of the business because people were scared that he was rough on people I guess, for whatever reason. He had told me after he had had a job in the corporate world for a few years, he called me and said, "You probably knew something that I never knew. In the corporate world, they have what’s called the Human Resources Department. And apparently, I can’t treat people the way I had been treating ya’ll sometimes.”
"He’s definitely a changed person now. He’s not nearly as rough on doing things. He’s still absolutely one-hundred-percent as thorough, and he has a different approach on how he shows people how he wants things done. As far as I’m concerned he’s one of the greatest minds in drag racing."
Though they haven't amassed the same level of success they achieved the first time around, Millican believes they are as dangerous as they have ever been.
"I’d say absolutely we are," Millican said. "I think working within our means makes us a little more dangerous because we have no choice but to pay more attention to the small details and I think that makes a big difference."
HOME SWEET HOME - There was a time when Sonoma Raceway was Robert Hight's home track. Friday night was one of them, as the two-time champion drove his Camaro to the top spot.
Looking for a repeat win at Sonoma Raceway, Hight closed out the first qualifying session with a 3.986-second pass at 324.36 mph to be the fastest of the group. Coming into the night session sitting in the No. 6 spot, Hight reeled off a stout 3.858-second pass at 334.65 mph that earned him three bonus points and the top spot in the Funny Car class.
“You know you’re always in for a treat when you come to Sonoma with the Friday night run," Hight said. "It’s going to be a throw-down, great atmospheric conditions with a great race track. That’s why it holds the speed record with the fastest run in history. You just have to hit it right and Jimmy and Chris did a great job. This will be our eighth No. 1 qualifier of the year,” said Hight. “We like these good conditions but it’s still summer time and we’re going to be racing in pretty hot conditions tomorrow and Sunday. We’ll celebrate a little bit tonight but change our whole outlook and program for the next two days.”
FORCE'S DOG DAY AFTERNOON - Let the record reflect that for 16-time champion John Force when calamity rains, calamity pours.
Thursday, while enjoying a day at Lake Tahoe with his grandsons Noah and Jacob, Force was out for a walk with the boys and their 200-pound Leonberger, a breed which is essentially a Newfie, longhaired Saint Bernard, and Great Pyrenees mix.
Walking the dog, appropriately named Moose, can sometimes be a challenge. However, add two hunting dogs (one unrestrained) into the mix, and there was chaos on the walking trail.
"I’m not saying it was trying to kill us, maybe it was in heat, I don’t know, but it was all over our dog," Force explained. "I was worried about my grandkids, and I just went into fight mode and tried to take the leash from Jacob because that dog just runs him around. I had a hold of it trying to get him back, but [the unrestrained dog] was after Moose. It scared me."
In the scuffle, Force ended up falling over a log cutting his leg, arm, and neck. Just as Force got a handle on his bearings, Moose took off running, dragging the perplexed Force.
"Now my wife, she looks at it completely different," Force explained. "What she took away from the incident is that I dropped five f-bombs during the struggle in front of the grandkids.
"Jacob set the record straight, 'He only said four F-words, grandma."
Force will admit it; he's terrified of strayed dogs stemming from an incident he said happened in the 1970s when a guard dog took a chunk of flesh from his arm and sent him to the hospital.
"Not a care if I was dying or anything; I just had my life flash before my eyes," Force said. "When that dog opened its mouth and showed teeth, they looked like werewolf teeth. I was shaken up pretty bad."
Call it bad timing, but someone believed the very next morning would be the perfect time to pull a prank on the wearied Force.
The someone was the Fox Sports crew with Ron Capps as the accomplice posing as a track staffer, disguised with a thick, but fake mustache which completely fooled Force. They were looking to punk someone, and Force made an easy mark.
"I was trying to get into the track this morning for the mandatory meeting at 11:30 am," Force recalled. "I pull up to the gate, I’ve been stressed, I’ve been on the phone, talking, coffee’d up like a wild man, and I see a lady tell me “go over there in the far lane."
"I’m thinking, “what? That’s three lanes of traffic.”
She was setting up Force.
"I pull up to the gate, and I’m in a hurry, and I’m still on the phone. They asked for my ID, so I pulled it off and handed it through the door and then I heard this guy who walked up behind me. I couldn’t see him. I turned, and I could barely see his hat, and he wasn’t security or nothing. I said, “can you reach it?”
"He said, “no, you take it off.”
"I’m sitting there thinking, I’m going to be late for this meeting. I’ve got three minutes. Everyone’s calling me telling me I’ve got to be there. This guy goes, “this is no good for entry.”
"I said, 'yeah, it is.” He said, “no, it’s expired.”
Force pleaded with the unrelenting guard, who was Capps in disguise. Capps took it one step further by calling Force a liar and pointing out his credential should be No. 1 and not No. 9.
Force went ballistic and exited the car, going after the "jerk."
"I turned around, and he said, “this ain’t good,” Force said with a smile. "And I said, 'well, it’s really me.”
Capps then went to the edge and grabbed Force's hard card, and proclaimed, "Obviously you stole this. We’re confiscating this.”
Force exclaimed, "The f*** you are. Give me my s***,” and snatched his credentials from the in-shock Capps.
“Force, it’s me. Capps!”
Force calmed down, gave a minor smile, and headed to the meeting.
In a perfect example of no good deed goes unpunished, Force returned from the meeting and hopped on his scooter with the intention of going to apologize for his estimated 10 f-bombs leveled on the gate crew.
File this in the "You Can't Make This Up" category, as Force pulled away from his pits his hat blew off, and instinctively he went to turn back when he caught a glimpse of a car headed right for him.
Force hit the pavement hard.
"Look at this leg. It’s my old broken one," Force explained. "It’s swollen up. I can hardly walk; that’s why I’m limping. I got up, got my hat. Everybody came running over saying, “are you okay?”
"I went back to the gate, and they’re all standing there like “what the f*** happened?”
“I came over here to apologize, and I almost killed myself. I’m ready to go home. I’ve never been beaten up so bad in my life."
In the end, it was Capps who said he had to find out the hard way just how bad the timing was.
"I've known John Force for a long time, and we've had our share on-track instances," Capps said. "He's probably one of my best friends out here. I've never seen him like he was when he came out of that car at the gate. I didn't know when to stop and tell him this was a joke.
"When he put it in park and got out of the car, I knew he meant business. I didn't know what to think."
And just to think, it all started with a dog day afternoon.
STOFFER ENJOYING NEW EXPERIENCE IN PSM RANKS – Veteran Pro Stock Motorcycle racer Karen Stoffer, an eight-time national event winner, has always had her husband, Gary as her crew chief.
That’s not the case this season.
In 2019, Stoffer is driving a Suzuki for Jerry Savoie's White Alligator Racing team. Smith enters the Sonoma (Calif.) Nationals this weekend fifth in the point standings on the strength of one runner-up finish at Chicago.
“It’s has been really good,” said Stoffer said about driving for WAR. “It’s different. I’m used to having Gary in front of me and Gary tuning for me, but it is actually working out very well. We blend very well. They are a fantastic team over there, and they welcomed me with open arms, and hopefully, they say the same about me. The bikes are very similar, so it’s actually working really good. We are pitted next to each other so I can hop back and forth because I still do a lot of work on the Underdahl-Stoffer Pro Stock Motorcycle team, but I think it is a good blend.”
Karen is still part-owner of the Underdahl-Stoffer Pro Stock Motorcycle team with backing from Suzuki Extended Protection.
Stoffer has a 7-8 elimination-round record this season after eight races. At the Mile-High Nationals last weekend in Denver, Stoffer qualified No. 10 and lost to Eddie Krawiec out of the Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson stable.
“This just came together for this year,” said Karen about the deal with Savoie. “With LE (Tonglet) wanting to raise his family and take a little bit of time off, he (Savoie) had a bike available. He had some opportunity to do some development. He didn’t know if he was going to make every race, but he wanted to make sure that he had a bike that did make every race. He called us up over the offseason and asked us what we were doing, and we were up in the air with me, as far as what I was going to do. We chatted, and Gary made the agreement, and we came to a deal we couldn’t refuse, and here I am, and I think it is working out very well. We will hopefully no more when we get to the Countdown, how well it is working out.”
Stoffer wants to win races but is keeping things in perspective.
“It has been a while,” said Stoffer about Suzukis getting NHRA national event wins. “The Suzukis are definitely underpowered in general across the board of all of the platform of motorcycles. We have not had a rule improvement or a change in six years, and the V-Twins have had multiple changes every year. Suzukis are definitely behind in horsepower, but the WAR team definitely has a lot of R & D, and in performance, they are probably the best performing Suzuki out here. So, it is going to be interesting where we go from here, but it is working out really well.”
Stoffer has competed in 238 career Pro Stock Motorcycle races, and in addition to her wins, she has been a runner-up 13 times.
GOOD FIRST IMPRESSION - The phrase goes, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”
For rookie Pro Stock driver Steve Matusek, his first experience at racing NHRA Pro Stock last weekend in Denver left quite the first impression.
Matusek qualified fifth with a 6.956 at 197.65 mph in the Elite Motorsports Ford Mustang, and despite a first-round loss to three-time world champion Jason Line, there were nothing but positives coming.
“It was almost a picture-perfect weekend,” Matusek said. “We intended to go rounds, and we had a good car, but that’s okay. There were a lot of positives to build on. My comfort level in the car, the team, the power they’ve made in the car, how competitive we were, and how under control and comfortable I was, every aspect of it was a positive experience for me.
“It’s one of the hardest places to race and a tall challenge, and I think we passed,” Matusek said. “I felt all the tools were there, and I was confident I could do the job in the seat.
“We’re not just here to satisfy something on our bucket list. We didn’t just show up to try it out. We’re here to make some noise,” Matusek said. “It started off to be a dream weekend, and though it didn’t end that way, I really wouldn’t change one thing.”
Thermo-Tec official will be in the Matusek pits this weekend, as one of his sponsors in his Pro Stock effort.
RALLYING THE TROOPS - Erica Enders wants to win this weekend in Sonoma, and she's fired up enough to rally the troops.
“I requested a team meeting, and hopefully it’s going to be a momentum-building and morale-boosting type of meeting,” Enders said. “It’s just going to be about getting back to where we started and get back to what we know.
“What we do comes with a lot of pressure and stress, so this meeting can help us get in the cracks of what’s going on. It gives us a chance to hit the reset button and get our swagger back.”
Enders booked a conference room at the hotel the team is staying at last night for the Thursday meeting.
The Elite Motorsports team has one win this season – that being Jeg Coughlin’s victory in Phoenix – which is less than the team and Enders had hoped for through the first eight races of 2019.
For the 23-time event winner, Sonoma represents one of the few facilities where Enders hasn’t won, something she has tried to rectify for several seasons.
“I write down my goals every year, and one of them is to win Sonoma. I’ve written that down for the past ten years,” said Enders, who is currently eighth in Pro Stock points. “It’s one of my favorite places to race, and I look forward to it every year, but we have never done well. Hopefully, we can win it one of these years, and it would be nice if we can get it done this year.”
SWEEPING IS SWEEPING - Last season Steve Torrence swept the entire NHRA Countdown to the Championship, six races, and 24 rounds of competition.
So how hard is it to sweep half that number of races?
Apparently, it's pretty tough for Torrence.
Since Denver, Sonoma, and Seattle first were contested back-to-back-to-back in 1989, only seven drivers have managed to win all three events in the same season, and no one has done so since Antron Brown in 2009. The success rate for the Western Swing (seven sweeps in 90 attempts) is poorer than that for thoroughbred horse racing’s Triple Crown (13 successes in 145 years).
Torrence knows that he may never have a better shot at joining a very exclusive fraternity composed of Brown, Tony Schumacher, Larry Dixon, Cory McClenathan, Joe Amato, John Force, and Greg Anderson than he does right now.
Although he has yet to sweep the ‘Swing, Torrence has won all three races, albeit in different years. He won Denver in 2015 and 2019, Sonoma in 2017 and Seattle in 2012.
BECKMAN HONORED, DELIVERS ON FRIDAY - “I've been honored to emcee ‘Eric's Night’ for many years, and it's always exciting to reminisce about Eric, spend time with his friends and family, and know that we're raising money to help kids through Speedway Children's Charities, something Eric would have loved," Jack Beckman said. "Now, to be recognized with the Eric Medlen Award, well that's just hard to wrap my head around. I'm really humbled by this."
Beckman has grown fond of the microphone, but when Bob Frey is part of the equation, he'll all too willing to give it up.
"I'm also extremely excited to turn the mic back over to Bob Frey, the man who began emceeing these events, a great friend, and someone I have looked up to for more than 30 years,” Beckman said.
Friday, Beckman was the quickest driver in Q-1, but when it came to the second, he fell to No. 7 with a 3.879, 333.41.
RIGHT OUT OF THE GATE - In her first qualifying pass of the weekend, Brittany Force launched her Carquest Brakes dragster to a 3.785-second pass atOK 325.61 mph. During the second session, the 2017 Top Fuel world champion had trouble when she started to lose traction and had to shut off her 11,000-horsepower machine to run 7.440-seconds at 85.54 mph. Force will start Saturday’s qualifying sessions in the No. 10 spot.
“We had a good run Q1, ran a .78, put us at No. 3. That last run we were just trying to take advantage of a cool track and really push the car, but it didn’t get down there, shook the tires,” said Force. “Today wasn’t what we were looking for, but we have all day tomorrow, two more runs and conditions that will be similar to race day. We’ll get some data and get ourselves set up to go some rounds on race day.”
THE GREAT EIGHT - The field is set for the annual Mickey Thompson Tires Pro Bike Battle featuring the very best in the Pro Stock Motorcycle category. This race-within-a-race pits the top eight riders in the class against each other as they compete for a $25,000 prize on July 27 during the 32nd annual NHRA Sonoma Nationals.
Former world champions Eddie Krawiec, Matt Smith, Andrew Hines, Angelle Sampey, and Hector Arana Sr. comprise five of the eight competitors who earned the most bonus points during qualifying between the annual events. Also among the elite eight are Hector Arana Jr., Angie Smith, and Ryan Oehler.
Unlike previous years, the final standings (led by Krawiec) will not determine first-round matchups in this exciting battle. First-round pairings will be decided on stage during a pre-race ceremony only moments before competition begins. The riders will each select a special Mickey Thompson tire. The inside of each tire will be numbered one through four. The riders who select tires with the same numbers inside will be paired up against each other for the opening round.
Current world champion M.Smith won this iconic event in 2018 when he defeated Krawiec in the final round, providing a big boost of momentum going into the Countdown to the Championship and setting him on a positive course that stretched through the remainder of the season. Krawiec and his teammate Hines have been dominant forces in Pro Stock Motorcycle so far this year, and each competitor understands how the Mickey Thompson Tires Pro Bike Battle can set the stage for success in the Countdown.
This year’s competition also marks a milestone for females in the sport as this is the first year to have more than one woman in this elite field. A. Smith and Sampey have both competed in the Mickey Thompson Tires Pro Bike Battle in years past and both plan to be the first woman in NHRA history to bring home the $25,000 prize from this specialty race.
Introductions and tire flips for pairings for the Mickey Thompson Tires Pro Bike Battle take place at 12:45 p.m. on Saturday followed by the first round at 1:15 p.m. The semifinals follow at 4:15 p.m., with the final round slated for 5:30 p.m.