2019 NHRA SPRING NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
BRITTANY FORCES MAKES IT BACK-TO-BACK WINS AT HOUSTON - It’s back-to-back for Brittany Force.
Force, who won the 2017 NHRA Mello Yello Series Top Fuel world championship, won at Houston for the second year in a row.
Force’s latest win came Sunday when she drove her Advance Auto Parts dragster past Antron Brown in the finals of the 32nd annual Mopar Express Lane NHRA SpringNationals presented by Pennzoil to capture the title.
Force clocked a 3.749-second elapsed time at 302.14 mph to defeat Brown’s 3.995-second effort.
“All of John Force Racing was on a mission (Sunday morning),” Force said. “We had a good qualifying weekend, my dad and I were No. 1, which was the first time father and daughter have qualified No. 1 at an event and that was awesome. That’s something very special my dad and I will share. We were looking for a win, but to be able to do it with Robert Hight by my side in that Auto Club car is pretty awesome. We’re happy.”
This was Force’s ninth Wally of her career, and first this season. It was a memorable weekend for Force as she also clocked a pass of 3.661-second elapsed time at 332.18 mph to set both ends of the track record during Q2 Friday. It also was Force’s first victory with her crew chief David Grubnic. Grubnic was tuning Clay Millican’s Top Fuel dragster last season.
“Coming into the season with all the changes and a whole new team, with David Grubnic, Mac Savage and a whole new group of guys,” Force said. “That’s a lot to wrap your head around. That’s a lot to go out to Phoenix (for preseason testing) and try and find a routine and figure out what works for you guys and make some runs down the track. Really it is about finding a routine. I knew it was going to take us a while, but we started turning the corner in Gainesville. Gainesville is where I screwed up because I had a good race car. Then, we went to Vegas and were runner-up, so I knew things were turning around, it just takes time until you find that and move forward with the team.
To be able to come out here with that No. 1 qualifier 3.66, that’s just an outstanding run with David Grubnic and Mac Savage and all the guys. Then, to win this thing, I’m very excited.”
Force’s victory binge Sunday consisted of wins over Cameron Ferre, Doug Kalitta, Millican and Brown. This was Force’s eighth-career round win over Brown in 23 attempts.
“A lot was going through my head,” Force said about her final-round run. “In the semifinal round, I got so lucky. I had like a .002 light and you’re not supposed to have that in a Top Fuel car. Luck was on our side then and after the run I went and talked to my dad, and I went and talked to Robert and David Grubnic sat down and talked to me and said to ‘put it out of your head and let it go. Or you’re going to come up here and do the same exact thing. To have a crew chief that takes the time to sit down and talk to you in the moment of going up to a final is pretty cool. We sat down and talked, and I got it out of my head, and we came up here and pulled it off. It’s all the people around me and the support system I have.”
Force acknowledge her latest victory is the perfect jolt her team needed.
“It’s positive vibes for all of us,” Force said. “It pumps everybody up. This is still early in the season. To be able to pull this off with a whole new team, and all the changes we have had this season. Not just a new team, not just new crew chiefs, but switching over parts to John Force Racing parts. There has been a lot of change in our pits and to be able to pull this off, it builds all of us (up). You could feel the energy in our pits Friday night after we put that 66 on the board. You felt it Saturday night. This whole team was pumped up and hungry for our first win. We thought we had it last weekend, and we let it slide so to come out here and pull it off makes us ready for the next one.”
Brittany said being the only daughter racing with her father this season is something she enjoys.
“I’m excited about this season,” she said. “If he could stop coming up with the crazy T-shirt ideas he has like the Last Samurai, Final Force and she doesn’t wear a wedding ring, she wears a champ ring. It is a special year for us. I have always been out here with Courtney and this year it is just us and that’s special. I told him at the beginning of the season and it about made him cry. He said ‘really? It really matters to you? I said yes. It is tough not having my sister out here. Now, it is me and you dad and my ultimate goal and obviously everybody on our team has the goal of going after wins, but really on the bucket list is doubling up with my dad. He’s the one who taught me everything about drag racing, about the sport, about driving. He’s the one who gave me this opportunity, so I owe it all to him, so to end up in that winner’s circle with him would be unreal and that’s what we are going for.” Tracy Renck
HIGHT MAKES IT A JFR SWEEP AT SPRINGNATIONALS - Make it a sweep for John Force Racing in Top Fuel and nitro Funny Car.
Robert Hight did his part by winning the 32nd annual Mopar Express Lane NHRA SpringNationals presented by Pennzoil Sunday at Houston.
Hight, a two-time NHRA Mello Yello Series nitro Funny Car world champ (2009 and 2017) edged Matt Hagan in the final round.
Hight clocked a 3.941-second elapsed time at 310.84 mph and never trailed against Hagan’s 3.996-second effort at 311.70 mph.
The impact of the double win by him and his teammate Brittany Force in Top Fuel wasn’t lost on Hight.
“It’s funny, Brittany and I, this is the third time we have had double-ups,” Hight said. “Really the fourth if you count the championship, winning in 2017. We seem to do really well together, and it was really cool to be down there when she made the corner and I threw a bunch of Mello Yello on her car. That team is new, and to see what they have accomplished in a short amount of time is cool. Dave Grubnic and all his guys have adapted well. They have been to two finals in a row, and they are on their way.”
This was Hight’s 48th career Wally and third this season as he also was victorious in at the season-opening Winternationals in Pomona, Calif., and the Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla. Hight remains the leader in the points standings and he has a 110-point advantage over second-place Hagan.
“I wasn’t nervous about qualifying,” said Hight, who qualified fifth at 3.908 seconds. “You believe in your team, you know they are going to get it done. What I was nervous about was the weather. The forecast didn’t look so good for Saturday. Anything can happen, rainout and we are not in. Luckily Mother Nature held out for us and we even got two runs (Saturday) and we got two points each run. Even though our backs were against the wall, my team came out swinging and made real good runs for the conditions and we got the bonus points. I’m proud of them. That’s why we have three wins already this season because they are so good. My team keeps me in check. We have been through a lot of ups and downs and I’ve never seen a more focused group of individuals and we came in here and got the job done.”
On Sunday, Hight drove his Chevy Camaro tuned by Jimmy Prock and Chris Cunningham past Johnnie Lindberg, reigning world champ J.R. Todd, his boss, John Force and Hagan.
“I had a tough row, Johnnie Lindberg is a tough competitor, second round J.R. Todd, he’s the current champion, and John Force, the guy’s looking for his 150th win, nobody will ever match that or even come close and then Matt Hagan in the final,” Hight said. “It was a tough day and it was kind of funny because Tiger Woods goes out and wins the Masters today and they look at him as an old man. He’s 43 years old. I guess in this sport I’m older than most of the guys I race, other than the boss, and it shows that the older guys can still get this done.”
Hight also took a moment to discuss what’s like having Jimmy Prock as his crew chief.
“I’m very fortunate, my first win came with Jimmy and most of my wins have come with Jimmy,” Hight said. “In fact, I think of all the drivers he has had I have the most wins of any driver he has been with. We were very fortunate to get him back. He comes back and we win the championship (in 2017) and the second year, we go down to the last day with a chance to win a championship. The guy is the most focused individual you will ever meet. The trailer could be on fire and I’m not kidding you, he would not look up from that computer. He would not even notice. That is how focused this guy is. He expects you to go up there and be as focused driving. I’m very fortunate, and I hope I end my career with Jimmy, and I hope it is a long time from now, but we have a lot of business to take care of and a lot more championships to win.”
This was Hight’s third career victory at the SpringNationals, with his moist recent before Sunday coming in 2014. Hight acknowledged his most recent win didn’t come easy because of the weather conditions.
“You could not have a bigger swing in conditions than we had this weekend,” Hight said. “We had hot and humid on Friday and Saturday and then it changed (Sunday) to dry air and I think we were 10 feet above sea level. If you went up there with the same tune-up you had on Friday and Saturday this thing would not make half-track, it would be burned up. My guys have a real good handle on changing conditions. This race track is really good. The Angel family did a great job on it and it was good enough to get the win.”
From NHRA statistics, Hight also became the first person to ever beat John Force at four consecutive NHRA national events.
“I know John wants me to go up there and have the same intensity when I race him as I do anybody else, but this sport is very humbling and it can also change in a hurry,” Hight said. “John could go out and beat me the next four times I face him. The Peak team is really coming around and they are running good. You saw they were the No. 1 qualifier. I hate beating the boss, but who knows maybe he will park me, and I will not go to Charlotte (N.C.) the next race, but I doubt it. It is a bummer to beat the boss. John Force has 149 wins and 16 championships because he is an intense competitor and wants it as bad as anybody else. You just know every day he’s going to the race track that’s he’s looking for 150. It’s tough. I wouldn’t be standing here today if it were for John Force.” Tracy Renck
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK – HISTORY IS MADE AS RAIN ADDS TO THE COMPLEXITY OF HOUSTON
HISTORY IN THE BOOKS - It was bound to happen, and Sunday afternoon, following a bout with rain, Funny Car icon John Force and his Top Fuel racing daughter Brittany Force made history when they secured No. 1 qualifiers at the same event.
“In my career, I’ve done a lot of things, won a lot of specialty races but anytime this sport brings me together with my children, that’s what I really love about NHRA drag racing,” said John Force. “We’re one big family. To have a moment with Brittany, that she and I can share together, we’ve really become a lot closer. There won’t be a party tonight, we have a race to win tomorrow, but it’ll give us a moment of just looking at each other and me being mostly proud of her.”
On Friday Ms. Force snagged both ends of the track record after a blistering 3.661-second pass at 332.18 mph from Friday’s session under the lights.
“We’re coming in strong this weekend," Ms. Force explained. "We had a good weekend in Vegas. We were runner-up at the Four-Wide. We’re coming in strong in Houston. We won this last year, and the plan is to come out and win this thing tomorrow on race day. Setting both ends of the track record last night was awesome. A 3.66 on the board is a pretty incredible run by David Grubnic and Mac Savage and the Advance Auto Parts team.
"We’re looking for a long day tomorrow. Its where it really begins,” said Force. “Talking to my crew chiefs, we were looking to get set up for tomorrow. In the second run temperatures cooled down a bit, so I had a good feeling, we’d be able to get it down there and put a good number on the board. We struggled in the third session, but overall we’ve had a great weekend with good runs and looking for a long day tomorrow.”
This latest No. 1 qualifier is Ms. Force’s 11th No. 1 qualifying position and first at Houston Raceway Park where she is the defending SpringNationals champion. She has won from the No. 1 spot only once in her career, but it was significant — the 2017 Auto Club Finals where she clinched her world championship. She’ll start race day matched up with Cameron Ferre.
As for the elder Force, the 16-time Funny Car champion will start race day from the No. 1 position for the first time this season. It is his 156th career No. 1 qualifier, an NHRA record, 18 more than second all-time Warren Johnson, who has 138. It is also his 11th No. 1 at Houston Raceway Park. The last time Force qualified No. 1 was the 2017 Gatornationals where he went on to win the race. He’ll be chasing win 150 on Sunday, beginning with a match-up against Terry Haddock.
“I’ve earned a lot of these hats," said John Force. "Not so many lately but Brian Corradi and Dan Hood, Tim Fabrisi, these guys are doing a really good job at teaching the new kids and the old. They give me a hot rod that runs like that; tomorrow is a whole new ball game.
“Tim Wilkerson is hungry, and I thought he was going to be right there with me, but tomorrow we have to get after this thing. Tonight, we can share the moment and tomorrow; we’ll come out here to Houston Raceway Park to entertain the fans. Again, I want to thank the Angel family. The Angels spent their money, and that is what our sport is all about for us to survive in this economy. To run numbers like that on a great race track makes me feel really good and, especially, to see my baby girl do the same so thank you to the whole family and God bless you.”
Force’s 3.888-second run came during the first qualifying session Friday and held through both sessions on Saturday.
WILKERSON IN THE MIX - Tim Wilkerson powered to a best time of 3.895-second at 321.12 mph to claim the No. 3 position and a total of four bonus points. He will race Jim Campbell in round one Sunday.
Wilkerson's lofty qualifying berth certainly comes as no surprise. He entered the Houston event on the heels of back-to-back final rounds in both Gainesville and Las Vegas, and he and his dedicated team have been sharpening the saw at each race in qualifying. In Phoenix, he was No. 3, in Gainesville No. 2, and in Las Vegas, he nabbed the pole. It all comes down to race day, though, and that is where Wilkerson is aching to see the team's collective effort come to fruition.
"The problem you're going to have tomorrow is that it's going to be 180 degrees different out there than it's been all weekend," said Wilkerson, eyeing the fluctuating Houston-area weather. "We have crazy power now, but the weather system that's going to come through is going to make it anybody's race."
Sunday's forecast is calling for temperatures in the high 50s to mid-60s. Weather in Houston qualifying, though, was hot and sticky.
Wilkerson took the heat in stride. The driver who also wears the hats of team owner and tuner was out of the gate with a good hand for the conditions and laid his cards on the table in the first qualifying round with a solid 3.941, 320.81. It was good for the No. 3 spot and a bonus point as third-quickest of the session.
Round two of qualifying was where Wilk put his best foot forward, picking up the pace and clocking a 3.895-second pass at 321.12 mph that was low of the round and brought in another three bonus marks.
"Tomorrow will be a different day, and we'll see how it all works," said Wilkerson. "I'm just going to concentrate on going down the track. We should be all right, but it's going to come down to making the right decisions, plain and simple. We're on a pretty good roll, and we'd sure like to keep that going."
NIP AND TUCK - Pro Modified lived up to its reputation as the premiere doorslammer division with a qualifying spread which spanned from Jose Gonzales' 5.731 to the bump spot anchored by Rickie Smith's new turbo car at 5.790.
Erica Enders qualified No. 15 and managed a new speed track record at 258.42 miles per hour.
NO LOOKING BACK - Even though a nitrous car qualified second with a 5.751, Rickie Smith says he's staying with the turbocharged car for the long haul.
Smith is quick never to say never, but for drag racing's most decorated doorslammer pilot, he's as close to declaring he's done racing with a nitrous-injected Pro Modified.
Last month's NHRA Gatornationals debut of a new turbocharged combination was just a small sample size of what he's been fighting for almost a decade. He won't come out and say if you can't beat them, join them because he did beat the turbocharged combination many times with his nitrous car. He will adamantly say the turbocharged combination spearheaded by Steve Petty provides him with the best chance to win.
"I only got to test one time before Gainesville, and mainly worked on bumping in at the line," Smith said. "The car’s fine, the car runs. The track was so good down there, and what was happening, we were stopping the tire too hard and then it would shake. We worked on that.
"Steve actually went and tested the day after with Jose’s car and kind of figured out a little better deal so when it gets hot and crappy; he’s got a lot of tuneups for that. He never had run this tire that we’re running right now on a real tight track like it was at Gainesville. It just stayed cool and cloudy. Everything’s good. I’m happy with it. I mean it’s doing what I thought it was going to do. Run a couple hundredths quicker with it than I have a nitrous car and that’s just the beginning."
Once Smith gets the staging end of the battle mastered he could be hell to deal with; at least that's his goal.
"The problem is I jumped right in at testing and staged it fine, done everything just fine and had good lights when I tested," Smith said. "But twice, once in testing and the first round of eliminations at Gainesville, normally I was hitting the button about three times, and it would be staged. Once at Orlando I hit it eight or nine times before it staged. First round on Sunday, I hit the button nine times before it finally jumped in. I had done kind of give up on getting staged. I was still hitting the button I guess with my thumb, but in my mind I done figured I was going red because I didn’t think the car was going to stage and it jumped in, and then I was just dead late. That was nobody’s fault but my own.
"You can’t be that frustrated and think you’re going to get red lighted and really have a decent light. We just got to get that better and we will. Actually, I did a little testing in a driveway, so I think we’ve solved that problem hopefully. Other than that, I’m tickled to death with what I see with the car."
And just like, the champion of the nitrous combination, in no uncertain terms admitted he was divorced from racing the bottle rockets.
"Without NHRA making some kind of major change I’m not going back and running bottom half of the field," Smith said. "That’s what’s coming. It's just a matter of another race or two. Just a couple more people are getting their junk together. I mean the nitrous car’s going to really struggle to be a top half qualifying car."
Smith saw the handwriting on the wall; if you want to be one of the growing list of contenders, you had better grab a car capable of generating a performance advantage.
"It used to just be kind of two to four good racers out there over the years; basically me and Troy were winning the championship," Smith said. "Now you’ve got eight or nine really good racers out there. You’re not going to hardly qualify in the bottom half of the field much and expect to win a round or two. The thing is, there are just other places to run this car rather than NHRA. So that’s kind of a few things I’m looking at too."
So Smith would come back to nitrous with the right kind of rule change?
"Well, I’m not even going to do down that road no more, because I went down that road so many times," Smith said. "Right now as far as I’m concerned, the rules are fine. I’m not going to bitch. I done spent all this money to change over; leave it alone."
RIGHT FROM THE START - With weather conditions the best the track had seen all weekend, who could blame Scott Palmer and his Magic Dry crew from making a run at No. 1 qualifier.
"That last run we were trying to run a low 3.70 like everyone else, but we had a clutch malfunction," Palmer explained. "A piece in the clutch broke and that killed the run. Basically, stuff like that is just about unavoidable so there are two ways to look at it. You can look at it as bad luck, or you can luck at as good luck because it didn't happen tomorrow in the first round of eliminations."
Instead, Palmer rested on his opening pass from Friday, a 3.771 at 321.81 mph, as his run of record, placing him opposite Texan Billy Torrence, who posted a 3.720 at 325.92 mph in Q4. Palmer enjoys a tuning alliance with Torrence and his son Steve, the reigning Top Fuel champion.
"Unfortunately, we race Billy in the first round," Palmer said. "Those guys are our friends, and they help us with so much. Plus, that's a consistently fast car. Either way, we will still go up there and do our best. You just never know in this sport. If it stays cooler, we'll run our best of the weekend tomorrow morning. Hopefully, it's enough to beat Billy.
"It's been a good weekend for us so far. We started off with a 3.77 in Q1, made some changes Friday night that didn't quite work, but at least we got to try some things and still ran a 3.80. Earlier today we tried to run another 3.77 and ran a 3.79. Thankfully we got the last session in before the rain because otherwise, the clutch malfunction would have happened tomorrow first round."
LEADER OF THE PACK - Ron Capps is the fastest of six Mopar-powered Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Funny Car drivers that qualified for Sunday’s elimination rounds.
Capps, the 2016 NHRA Funny Car champion and four-time Houston SpringNationals winner, was one of only two drivers to post a 3.8-second run during qualifying Friday and Saturday, making his best qualifying pass with his lap of 3.893 seconds at 319.29 mph.
"Listen, we are only five races in and we are always counting points, so we’ll take those three points," Capps said. "It was just a great job by the NAPA AutoCare team. Again, the proof is in the hard work. What (crew chief Rahn) Tobler’s done to put this car back to where it was in championship form the last couple of years, I love to see when he’s got a plan and watch it evolve and come together. I’ve got the best seat in the house to watch it from. I’m so happy for our team with Pennzoil in the house, USA Compressions, a great sponsor of ours, a Texas-based company, and they are here and obviously all of our NAPA people. It’s going to be fun tomorrow. Cool conditions. It’s going to be fast, and I’m looking to rekindle the magic we’ve had with Houston Raceway Park."
NOT THE NORM - Tommy Johnson Jr. has been on both a torrid and treacherous run of fortunes for five races. He's qualified strong but has also struggled to keep the race car intact at times.
Saturday in Houston, he saved his best for last with a 3.959 elapsed time at 312.13 miles per hour.
“We haven’t been our normal selves in qualifying. We kept fighting it, and I think we got back close with our Saturday runs. We’re making progress. We’re just struggling a little bit in the conditions. I’m confident this team will get it figured out tonight, and we’ll be much better tomorrow. It’s just been a little bit of a bumpy weekend, but we’ll be okay tomorrow.”
THE CHAMP IS FOURTH - J.R. Todd qualified fourth in Funny Car to lead Toyota into Sunday’s NHRA SpringNationals at Houston Raceway Park.
Todd ran in the top five of each of the four qualifying sessions during the weekend. The reigning world champion topped Saturday’s first session, was second in Friday night’s run with his weekend best of 3.903 at 326.08 mph, third in Saturday’s final session and fifth in Friday’s opening run. He earned a series-high six bonus points in qualifying during the weekend.
“Our DHL Toyota has been strong all weekend,” said Todd. “We’re starting in a good position, but we need to stay focused tomorrow. After the rain today and the cooler weather expected on Sunday, conditions are going to change, and nothing is ever easy in the Funny Cars.”
Todd, coming off a win at the most recent event in Las Vegas, will square off with Jim Campbell in the opening round on Sunday. He enters eliminations in third place in the Funny Car point standings.
AWARD WINNING - Jack Beckman made his quickest run of the weekend, a 3.932 elapsed time at 311.34 miles per hour, a run which netted him two bonus points.
“I’m okay with how we did, we got a chance to push and went too far on a couple of runs," Beckman explained. "We got points; we were second quickest out of the box. We’re doing some great stuff. The feedback from the fans on this MD Anderson program, I had no idea this many patients and former patients of that cancer center would be here this weekend. It’s been mind-blowing for me and to know that we’re a part of helping them fund cancer research is pretty gratifying. So, that’s Friday, and that’s Saturday. Sunday is about the trophy. We could go a long way toward raising even more money. If we can get this car in the winner’s circle, it’s certainly going to help our chances of raising even more funding.”
Beckman has already won this weekend; his Funny Car netted the ‘Best Appearing Car’ Award.
“Like Alan Reinhart said, it’s not so much about the car; it’s about what the car represents; it’s making a difference for people," Beckman explained. "We get to do that the other 23 races through Infinite Hero. We’re still selling the challenge coins at this race to fund the injured vets, but this one’s about cancer research and helping the people and the families of the cancer patients. I’ve been on both sides of that. I lost my mom, and I’ve been through cancer, so I get it from both ends.”
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK – THE FORCES ARE A FORCE TO BE RECKONED WITH; THE MOUNTAINS ARE IN HOUSTON
HISTORY DO-OVER - The best way to erase a bad memory is to create a better one. Friday night, John Force, the most decorated driver in Funny Car history, did just that.
After failing to qualify for the Houston race for the first time in his career last season, Force thundered to the top of the pecking order Friday, stopping the timers with a 3.888-second run at 319.29 mph.
Force said in the days leading up to the fourth stop on the 24-race tour he wanted to come in with guns blazing.
"All I have to do is get my act together in the cockpit, and we’ll be okay [for the weekend]," Force said. "I’m riding sixth in the points, but I’m excited to get back and prove my stuff. It doesn’t matter how many championships you’ve got, its where you’re going to go next, and it starts at Houston for me now.”
Force, a 16-time world champion, has 149 NHRA victories in his illustrious career and he has been No. 1 qualifier 155 times during that time.
“I joked coming in here, and I called Austin Coil, and I told him that I need some help from the good Lord just to keep up with these kids,” Force said. “Maybe I have an Angel, and he paved this race track. We need to give credit to the Angel family. Whatever they did down there, we used to have problems, definitely running these kinds of numbers and the money they invested for this track and NHRA was a good call.”
POWERS HAS THE POWER - Mountain Motor Pro Stock racer Chris Powers understands the importance of making a good first impression. That's why, in his NHRA national event debut, the large displacement factory hot rod driver from Carlisle, Pa., wasted little time in establishing his superiority at the NHRA Springnationals, the first of five events scheduled for these exhibition vehicles.
Powers stopped the timers at Houston Raceway Park with a 6.294 elapsed time at 222.84 miles per hour; the quickest and fastest any Pro Stocker has ever run at the Baytown, Texas-based facility.
"It feels good. It’s nice to get that number one spot finally," Powers said. "Both runs the car was on a shoestring. The car went straight down the track and just made two really good runs."
Mountain Motor Pro Stock, a style of Pro Stock first introduced to a national audience in 1977 by the IHRA's Ted Jones, is in its inaugural season as an exhibition category and scheduled for five events in 2019, with NHRA's 500-inch Pro Stock division running a reduced 18-event schedule this season.
There are ten of these specialty vehicles competing for the honor of the first win this season.
Powers, who rolled to the starting line Friday with an 818-cubic inch engine from Sonny Leonard, has only raced this specialty kind of factory hot rod for two seasons. The former Top Dragster racer gave it a try at the request of Rob Bealco, and in his first race racing Extreme Pro Stock in the PDRA he won the event.
The pressure to perform weighed heavily on Powers in Friday's first run.
"It kind of felt like the first time I ever got in the car," Powers said. "It feels good to be here. It’s nice to get out here and get in front of a lot of fans and put on a show for them.
"The perfect runs we made today would be Chuck Samuels putting the tune-up on the car. He’s what made it all possible."
HIGH-SPEED EDUCATION - Ceser Gonzales had never experienced being at a National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) Mello Yello Series event before attending Friday’s opening day.
The 26-year old Nacogdoches, Texas native was one of 27 students from Lone Star College Harris-North and San Jacinto College that participated in the launching of the “Assemble Your Future” initiative Friday celebrating students in the Mopar Career Automotive Program (CAP) in partnership between Mopar and Pennzoil.
“I’ve never experienced anything like this,” said Gonzales. “I thought I had a pretty good understanding of what it was going to take to have a career… now that I’ve been part of this MoparCAP program. I’m learning a lot more. Today has been incredible. I’ve met some great people and talked with a lot of people from dealerships that are looking for service technicians.”
“The Mopar CAP program is an outstanding program we use to develop our technicians to support the dealers we have across the country," said Keith Yancy, Director of FCA Performance Institute. "Here in Houston, we have an amazing partnership with Pennzoil as well as the NHRA, and it really is a benefit for everyone involved. The schools we work with here, Lone Star College and San Jacinto, and most importantly its a fantastic opportunity for our students in the program to develop long term careers.”
The students participated in a program that included hearing from Mike Lewis, VP of Don Schumacher Racing; Matt Hagan, Leah Pritchett and Neal Strasbaugh, Crew chief for Leah Pritchett.
"It’s great having these MoparCAP students out here with us," said two-time NHRA champion Matt Hagan. "Today is about so many things, but most importantly introducing them to dealers in the Houston area that are looking for quality service technicians. They are going to have a great experience. Some of them have never seen a drag race."
Mopar CAP, established in 1984, prepares students to begin their automotive technician careers upon graduation from a certified, two-year training institution, such as a university, college, community college or technical center. Currently, FCA has more than 9,000 active students enrolled in its Mopar CAP program, with students completing more than 100,000 class courses.
An estimated 750,000 auto technicians are working nationally, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Across the industry, another 46,000 will need to be hired between 2019 and 2026 to meet increased demand.
Following the Mopar Express Lane NHRA SpringNationals, the "Assemble Your Future" campaign will visit three additional NHRA national events:
Dodge Mile-High NHRA Nationals Presented by Pennzoil: July 19-21, 2019, at Bandimere Speedway near Denver
Mopar Express Lane NHRA Nationals Presented By Pennzoil: September 12-15, 2019, at Maple Grove Raceway near Reading, Pennsylvania
Dodge NHRA Nationals Presented by Pennzoil: October 31 - November 3, 2019, at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Las Vegas
The "Assemble Your Future" presence at the four NHRA races will encompass close to 12 Mopar CAP schools operating in those areas. The goal is to continue expanding the campaign by adding more racing venues in the future.
“We want to start slow and then continue to build,” said Keith Yancy, Director of the FCA Performance Institute. “Our hope is to expand this campaign so we can reach all of our 99 schools now teaching our CAP curriculum.”
MORE OF THE SAME - Tim Wilkerson has been on a roll of late, scoring final round finishes in the two most recent events on the 24-race NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series tour. Friday qualifying provided more of the same.
In the final pair of Funny Cars, Wilkerson thundered to the second spot in the 16-car field, belting out a 3.895, 321.12.
The tight window between events is something Wilkerson believes is beneficial to his momentum.
"I think it's good we get to go again so quick," Wilkerson admitted. "We learned what we wanted to with our blowers last weekend in Vegas, and Richard [Hartman, Team LRS] and I have a plan to get them more similar that we're really excited about. We have a good car with our Levi, Ray and Shoup Ford Mustang, and I think you'll see us climbing the ladder in points.
"I believe we can keep this up, and that's good because there are a lot of good cars. It's going to be a dogfight out there. You better have your stuff together, or you're going to be on the outside looking in when it comes down to the Countdown to the Championship."
This weekend marks the 498th race of Wilkerson's career as a nitro Funny Car driver. Race 500 will be the event in Atlanta next month.
Wilkerson's only Houston win came in 2004 when he beat Jerry Toliver.
SAME 'OLE SAME 'OLE - Mike Salinas won his first race of any kind last Sunday in Las Vegas. Five days later, the successful businessman turned Top Fuel racer said he's not about to let the success go to his head.
"Practice like you have never won and perform like you have never lost; That’s how we live,” Salinas said. “It keeps you hungry when you’re practicing and when I get to the track, I want to perform like I’ve never lost.”
Salinas qualified No. 1 at Vegas with an impressive 3.705 at 328.46 mph and never let up, picking up his first career Top Fuel victory in the process. It's as if those around him are more excited about the win.
Oh, Salinas is excited, there's no doubt.
“It’s sinking in now, and when something like this happens, you realize how special it is,” Salinas said. “We had a little party at the trailer after we won, and we had a lot of people – Scott Palmer, Brittany (Force), John (Force) – they all came over, and it was nice. They know how hard it is, so that was pretty neat.”
Salinas is blue collar through and through, which means he’s going to push harder and stay driven, especially as he moved into second in the points standings heading into the fifth of 24 races during the 2019 NHRA season.
“We go into every race taking it one round at a time," Salinas said.
Last Sunday's victory was actually secured in defeat. The team took the entire car apart after a first-round exit in Gainesville, finding the solution to a problem that had been ailing them for two races.
It didn't take long for them to determine they'd found their issue.
“We were pretty motivated as it was, the difference is all the guys on the team,” Salinas said. “Alan, all the guys, they knew (a win) was possible. I didn’t because it had never happened before. The car was super smooth, everything was smooth, and it was good (in Vegas).
“We were able to soak it in and enjoy the victory."
Salinas was sixth quickest on Friday with a 3.735, 321.27 best.
OFF-SEASON JUST PAID OFF - With Pro Stock taking the weekend off as part of a reduced schedule, the Pro Modified division stepped up to fill the doorslammer void.
Headed into the weekend, Todd Tutterow is the hottest professional doorslammer pilot on the grounds.
A month ago Tutterow claimed his first career NHRA victory win at Gainesville beating an opponent who made the quickest run in the history of the class in the final round.
Tutterow believes his holeshot victory is just the start of what he thinks will be a special year.
“We’re confident in what we’re doing, and we’ve got a good program,” Tutterow said. “We had last year to go through the whole season for the first time, feeling things out. We felt we should have won a couple races, but we’ve got a really good combination now, and we’re really looking forward to this race. It’s better to start up front if you’re trying to win a title and that’s what we’re working for.
“We made a lot of good progress throughout the winter months, so we just want to keep the ball rolling,” Tutterow said. “You can’t get behind in this class. The best way to have a good weekend is getting that first qualifying run under your belt and get in the field. But even that’s tough in this class. Doing that in Gainesville allowed me to know what to do and made my laps easier.”
The race in Houston marks the first of three races in a four-week stretch, again putting importance on starting the season well.
“I might not be the fastest car out there, but I’m pretty good at reading the track,” Tutterow said. “I’m a little more conservative, but the key is reading the racetrack. Everything has to click, and everybody has to do their job just to get it down the track.”
Tutterow was sixth quickest after two sessions Friday with a 5.774, 247.79.
STARTING TO GEL - The reacquaintance curve was expected to be overwhelming for championship-winning tuner Mike Kloeber after more than a decade out of the fulltime crew chief mix. Race by race there has been measured improvement for driver Clay Millican.
Consecutive back-to-back final round appearances suggest Millican is back on track.
“We had a good race car in Las Vegas and just missed the mark in the final round,” says Millican. “I know Crew Chief Mike (Kloeber) is really starting to iron out the details as we have unfinished work heading into Houston having previously lost in a final round against Brandon Bernstein.”
With two final round appearances in the last four races, Millican moved up to a tie for the 6th position in the NHRA Mello Yello series.
“We aren’t overly concerned about our points position at this early stage of the season as we know going rounds will continue to propel us into a great position in the countdown for the championship,” said Millican.