2019 NHRA THUNDER VALLEY NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK

 

 

       

 

NHRA THUNDER VALLEY NATIONALS - SUNDAY NOTEBOOK


BRISTOL WINNER MIKE SALINAS: NO RIVALRY WITH STEVE TORRENCE - To those who want to build up a rivalry between Top Fuel champion Steve Torrence and up-and-coming driver Mike Salinas, take a seat.

Salinas beat Torrence in the final of the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals on Sunday at Bristol Dragway, ending Torrence's five-race winning streak. And Salinas became the second Top Fuel driver to win more than one race this season.

Torrence still has a 339-point lead in the Top Fuel standings, while Salinas sits third despite missing two races. On the surface, Salinas' Scrappers Racing team – led by mastermind Alan Johnson and crew chief Brian Husen – appears to be a leading contender to Torrence's title hopes.

But hold on, Salinas said.

"We're gonna do one race at a time," Salinas said. "Sometimes when you talk, you get yourself in trouble. We let our stuff happen on the track. He is the champion. There are 14 other guys out there besides me that want him.

"You've got to step back a little bit and look how long it took them to get there. They're a great family, they've worked their butts off to get there, spent all kinds of money to come into this sport and I'm really happy for them that they've done really well. It sets the bar for all of us.  The Torrences changed the sport by being a single-car team to win the championship. I owe that family a lot, I really do. The kid's a great driver. Every time you go up there, you better have you're A-game because they're here to win.

"The nice part is, we're going to do this a lot more. We're going to see at the end of it who comes out on top. None of us show up at the track to lose, so I think we're going to show our stuff on the track. And there are 14 of us who have a rivalry with Steve – not just one."

Salinas had a tough road Sunday, but had plenty of speed to beat Scott Palmer, Antron Brown, Doug Kalitta and Torrence. He was low of the first round (3.800 seconds) to beat Palmer, second-lowest of Round 2 (3.908) to beat Brown, low of the semifinals (3.817) to beat No. 1 qualifier Kalitta.

"I've never won against Antron, I've never won against Steve," Salinas said. "So just to get those two were really nice for me. I was happy to get past Antron, just like Scott Palmer.  Doug Kalitta is a great opponent; his lights are amazing. He, Antron and Steve – those three guys are the guys who are going to run for the championship, and they're going to be right there.

"I'm learning how to get to that level. I think I'll get there."

Before the semis, Salinas' team had to make a late engine change.

"We started the car up, and smoke was coming out of the valve covers," Salinas said. "We had to do a motor swap in 17 minutes, and the guys swapped motors and did a really great job, in, out. We fired the motor up and went out and took care of Doug."

Torrence left first in the final, but Salinas' 3.836-second pass at 325.69 mph overcame Torrence's 3.892-second run at 287.60 mph.
 
"You can't take anybody out there lightly, nobody," Salinas said. "One at a time. We were happy to get past Scott Palmer because Scott's a buddy of mine, but I did wear an Evel Knievel shirt this morning, so that was my luck.

"This weekend, we came to have fun, to be honest with you. Alan knows exactly what he's doing, and I have all the confidence in him and the team. It's just amazing to be in the seat with these guys." Lee Montgomery

AFTER WINNING BRISTOL, BOB TASCA SAYS THE BEST IS YET TO COME - Bob Tasca III won for the first time since 2012, but boldly predicted he's a contender for the Funny Car championship this year.

Tasca took out Jim Campbell, Robert Hight, Ron Capps and John Force to win the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals on Sunday at Bristol Dragway, earning his first victory in the class since Dallas in 2012. Tasca also returned Ford to the winner's circle for the first time since 2016, and he lauded their return to NHRA.

"They don’t sponsor me because they like me," said Tasca, whose family has a long relationship with Ford. "They sponsor me because the Ford fan expects to win. That's why Ford races. There's no other reason why they're here. They've put an unbelievable amount of resources into engineering, aerodynamics, and they want to put me in a position to win.

"I told them I would win. I said, 'If you come back to racing, please give me the opportunity for these Ford fans. I will win and I will get your car that will compete for a championship.'"

Tasca sits ninth in the Funny Car standings, but he also knows he's overcome some early season struggles that culminated in adding Jon Schaffer as co-crew chief alongside Eric Lane before the Richmond race in what amounted to a trade with John Force Racing for Mike Green.

Plus, veteran tuner Mike Neff has been helping Tasca, too, building a valuable brain trust. Tasca's team started from scratch at Richmond, as he was unhappy with the Mustang's consistency before then.

"We literally flushed our setup," Tasca said. "The only thing the same in this race car from Richmond is me. Everything is different. … I don’t want to say it's instant pudding, but starting from scratch three races ago to pulling the trophy out here, that’s about as good as you're going to get. Trust me, this isn't the last time you're going to hear from this Ford.

"I've never had a race car as good as the race car I have right now. This thing goes down the race track fast. The guys put me in a position to win – no mistakes, no mistakes, no mistakes. That's how you win these races. That’s what we did here this weekend."

Tasca had the second best elapsed time in the first round (3.983 seconds at 318.47 mph) to beat Campbell. Tasca needed some help in the second round against Hight, who had to pedal and slowed to a 4.337 whole Tasca's 4.122-second pass was the slowest of any Round 2 winners.

But Tasca stepped it up in the semis, with a round-low 4.048 to beat a slowing Capps. Tasca had lane choice over rival Force in the final as the 16-time champion was gunning for his 150th career victory.

Both drivers' burnouts were fine, but Force had trouble backing up and then more trouble moving forward to stage. He deep-staged, but Tasca wasn't fazed and got off the line first before making the winning pass of 4.008 at 316.23 mph as Force slowed to a 4.155.

"I knew it would be a slugfest against Force," Tasca said. "I thought he was trying to run me out of nitro there. I didn't know what was going on. I guess he was having some trouble putting it in forward and reverse. I love racing John. I said getting out of the car it was probably one of my biggest career wins. It's simply because Ford came back to NHRA."

The victory was Tasca's first at Bristol.

"I love racing here," Tasca said. "I remember the first time walking into this tower. There's a picture of my grandfather's race car on the wall. There's so much history with my family racing here in Thunder Valley. I've been No. 1 qualifier, been to semifinals, been to final rounds here. Really wanted to win today.

"It's only one win, but trust me, it's a big one for this team. But more important, when you look at how that car is running, you have to take notice. The best is yet to come for this team." Lee Montgomery

NHRA THUNDER VALLEY NATIONALS – SATURDAY NOTEBOOK
 

WORM TO MAKE DRAG-RACING HISTORY, COACH THOSE WITH PARKINSON’S; CARUSO’S PRO MOD CRASH TAKES ALMOST TWO HOURS TO REPAIR; TRACK RECORDS INTACT AS KALITTA, FORCE LEAD NITRO FIELDS
 

Audrey Worm, the Grantville, Pa., racer (whose married surname coincidentally happens to be Grant), is preparing for her history-making 2020 season. She’s driving the Leverich Family-owned Fox Foundation / “Outrun Parkinson’s Disease” Dragster for a few more races. But thanks to Chip Lofton and Strutmasters.com, by the end of this year she’ll become the first female Top Fuel owner-driver since Shirley Muldowney.

Worm has plenty going on with that transition, but she also is taking on a special project that’s dear to her heart and a positive contribution to the battle against Parkinson’s Disease.

Inspired by her grandfather, who passed away in 2010, after his bout with the condition, and her father, who has battled it for about the past 14 years, Worm has been racing the Leverich Family Dragster with livery supporting the Michael J. Fox Foundation and her own “Outrun Parkinson’s Disease” program.

“Parkinson’s played a big part in my childhood, as well as my young-adult life. It has had a big impact on my family,” Worm, 27, said.

Her effort includes being a coach for Rock Steady Boxing, a non-profit organization that empowers individuals with Parkinson’s Disease by improving their quality of life through a non-contact, boxing-based fitness curriculum. The degenerative movement-disorder illness usually causes deterioration of motor skills, balance, and speech and sensory function. Rock Steady’s mission, according to its website, is to help people with Parkinson’s Disease to fight back.

Worm worked three days a week at the Rock Steady Boxing facility at Lancaster, Pa., before moving to Brantford, Ontario, in Canada following her marriage to crew chief Aaron Grant. She had planned to open her own gym there. However, with this new racing opportunity, the couple will operate the Top Fuel team from Grantville, Pa. (“Dad already has a big shop that we can fit the car in and work on it there. I get to be close to my dad again,” she said.) So the logistics for her own coaching and facility plans are a bit in limbo for the moment.

Just the same, she is as committed to both her race team and her Rock Steady Boxing venture. The latter, she said, will “help people with Parkinsons have a better quality of life, because it helps with their symptoms and their walking. You can tell it helps with their daily activities like brushing their teeth, combing their hair, buttoning a shirt, stuff like that that they really struggle with on a daily basis. Once they come to class, after a couple weeks, you can really tell a difference.”

Rock Steady Boxing began at Indianapolis in 2006, as former Marion County Prosecutor Scott Newman, who is living with Parkinson’s, and buddy Vince Perez, who had Golden Gloves boxing experience, meshed their needs and ideas for a solution. Perez designed a regimen that meets the fitness levels at all stages of Parkinson’s, from the newly diagnosed to those who had been living with it for more than a decade. The movement has gained more than 850 affiliates.

Worm said she learned about Rock Steady Boxing last year from a fan at the NHRA race at Topeka.

“I had never heard of it before,” she said. But she took him up on his invitation to go to a gym there and see the instruction for herself. “So I did that, and I just loved it. The people and with my dad having Parkinsons, it just all tied in with what we were doing.”

She went back home and tried to find a gym in her area and found the one at Lancaster and met the manager, Susan Ludwig, whom she calls “a Parkinson’s genius” she has learned much that has helped her father.

Dad John Worm, who built front-engine dragsters and helped his daughter launch her career, still is active in her developing team.

“He’s the maestro,” Audrey Worm said with glee. “He has managed a body shop. He’s used to managing all the hectic parts.

“He was trying so hard to help me with my career and help me get out here. So I think just the pressure of being out here and having something to look forward to and the adrenaline of running the car, I think just keeps him going and gives him something to do for the weekends. He really has a good time at the races,” Worm said.

So does Lofton, who also helps support Pro Stock racer Wally Stroupe and Pro Fuel Harley motorcycle racer Janette Thornley.  The North Carolina businessman, whose son Matt Lofton competed in NASCAR, said, “What my company is going to try to do for her, because my budget is pretty much used up for this season, is to get her to the races. But she’ll have to have her own parts, her own crew. And all of the [administrative] things are still on her back.

He said Worm’s program “exists because people are kind enough to give her parts, used parts. We don’t want to do anything to make people feel like she has a fulltime, big sponsor now so she doesn’t need the parts,” he said. “She needs the parts.”

Lofton said, “We’re going to evaluate everything that we have going and what she has going and see where we can go with everything. We would like to do more next season and think that we will. This year we’d like to get her to a few more races and run more rounds. They’ve been having to strategize and not run so many rounds if it takes so many parts. This year maybe we can run more rounds than they did in the last few races. She can’t make all the races, but she’ll make every one that she can.”

“A lot of the big teams have been gracious in helping her get parts and offering things to her and making things happen for her,” he said. “Unlike some of my NASCAR friends, these guys remember getting started.”

Among the racers who have helped her are John Force, Tim Wilkerson, Jack Beckman, Steve Torrence, Pat Dakin, and Dom Lagana.

Lofton said the “NHRA has been very, very supportive of her. They really, really want her to be involved a much as she can. NHRA is real excited to have her there. They need the [improved] car count. They see how the fans relate to her, being young, being female, being a low-budget team, and still fighting and working it and trying to live the dream.”

Worm smiled and said, “Living the dream . . . that’s exactly what we’re doing, every weekend – every day.”

John Worm said, “It shows the sport’s embracing women.”

“It shows women are embracing the sport,” Lofton said.

CARUSO CRASHES HARD IN PRO MOD QUALIFYING – Drag racer Marc Caruso exited his ’69 Camaro on his own Saturday afternoon after a frightening high-speed crash during Pro Modified qualifying for the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol, Tenn.  

The parachutes on Caruso’s car failed to deploy following his quarter-mile pass in the final session of time trials. That sent him plowing through the top-end sand trap, through the catch-netting, and into the barrier of barrels at Bristol Dragway.

Crews worked for about an hour and 45 minutes to repair the damage to the safety equipment and structure.

Caruso, a veteran Pro Mod racer, is from Fairport, N.Y.

Neither the team nor the NHRA has provided a report about Caruso’s medical status.  

LAGANA FAMILIAR WITH BRISTOL – Dom Lagana, who usually works on Billy Torrence’s Capco Dragster, is in the driver’s seat of the Lucas Oil/Lagana Racing Dragster this weekend after getting Torrence into Countdown contention last Sunday.

He started Saturday qualifying in the No. 10 position and stayed there, pitting him against No. 7 Brittany Force in the opening round of eliminations.

But the 33-year-old Lagana is as familiar with Bristol Dragway as any older, well-established racer is. He spent a significant amount of his childhood at this facility with his father Bobby Lagana Sr. and brother Bobby Jr., for IHRA action throughout the 1990s.

“The track used to be further forward, and the turn was part of the shutdown. It was pretty hairy,” Dom Lagana said. His job back in those days, he said, was easy: “I stayed out of the way, cleaned oil pans, put valve covers on. That was how I started.”

Fans will see Lagana driving again this season at Epping, N.H.; Reading, Pa.; and Concord, N.C. But Billy Torrence will keep him busy, running at Sonoma, Brainerd, and Indianapolis before the Countdown to the Championships will begin. Neither part-time driver will compete at Denver and Seattle.

DAKIN WITHSTANDS WINDS –  Pat Dakin, whose home, business, and Top Fuel race shop are in the Dayton, Ohio, area, said he “dodged a bullet, big-time” when tornadoes touched down in multiple spots near him three weeks ago.

“My business was spared. It took one little outbuilding. The next street over, which is about a couple hundred feet away, it destroyed a lot of industrial buildings. Fortunately, it missed my race shop completely. I never lost a shingle there. And it completely wiped out houses within a couple hundred feet of that place. I was extremely fortunate. None of my employees got hit,” he said.

“The devastation was horrible. It was a rather indiscriminate tornado.”  Dakin, who was 13th Friday in his planned one run, has a new crew member cylinder head specialist Dustin Cowen.

CRAMPTON HAS UNIQUE PERSEPCTIVE – Richie Crampton, driver of the DHL Dragster for Kalitta Motorsports, is a race driver of some distinction – in addition to winning the 50th Gatornationals in March, earning 19 Wallys altogether, and being a naturalized U.S. citizen from Australia. Not only can he prove he’s still capable as a clutch specialist (as he did at Chicago during this stretch of races), but he builds race cars that his competitors drive.

“It’s kind of a unique situation to be in, of course, because building race cars for the people I compete against and then showing up on the weekend driving cars that are provided to me by Kalitta, which are great race cars, it’s just an usually dynamic, Crampton said. “It’s what I enjoy doing. We build a lot of good race cars at Lucas [Morgan Lucas Racing], and it’s fun. But it’s weird. I don’t think there’s too many other professional race car drivers that are probably in the same situation as I am with that.”

He said he doesn’t think it gives him any edge on anyone, though: “I don’t think there’s really any advantage at all. There’s great competitors and drivers that have never even turned a wrench. When the helmet goes on, it’s all about how you drive the race car. Maybe there’s something you might pick up along the way here or there, but I think ultimately that’s my day job during the week and when it’s time to race it’s just go race.”

Crampton said, “One of the cool things about my story is that I’ve worked on the cars for 15 years before I got to drive them. Every now and then, it’s cool to get back on the tools and lend a hand when I need to. We had a crew member that wasn’t there in Chicago, so I got to fill in a little bit, and that made me feel good about myself, and I tried to lend a hand. But I’ve got a great team behind me, so hopefully they won’t be depending on me too much.”

This season, he said, “definitely has some highs and lows, but winning the Gators was huge. In the most recent couple of races we’ve had here, our car has definitely turned the corner. So we’re qualifying good, making it to the finish line, and making really good runs. I’m pretty excited about the outlook for this weekend and moving forward trying to maintain that spot in the top 10 before the Countdown starts.

Winning here on Fathers Day, Crampton said, “would mean the world to me. I won this race in 2015 and our daughter was here, which was kind of rare. They don’t come to a ton of races, but my wife, Stephanie, brought Emma, our daughter. We raced Larry Dixon in the final round here. He was unbeatable on Father’s Day for several years. So to beat him was huge, and to share that day with Emma was pretty cool. Unfortunately, my kids won’t be here this weekend, but I know they’ll be watching at home. It’s one of those special race days. When Clay Millican got to win it, that was a pretty special day. We’re all going to be trying pretty hard Sunday.”

Crampton sloughed off a question about how sentimental Clay Millican’s victory here in 2017 was. “Like everybody else, did you cry when Clay Millican won?”

“No,” Crampton said a bit playfully, “there was something in my eye.”

If that was “a moment” for Crampton, his driving career is full of “moments” since he has joined Kalitta Motorsports and been learning from drag-racing pioneer Connie Kalitta. He also takes a back seat to the boss when fans come to visit.

“It’s awesome. His name is at the top of the grandstand out here [as one of the Legends of Thunder Valley], and I get reminded of it so frequently, hanging out at the ropes with the fans. They want to come see me and check out the car but they want to ask about Connie: ‘Is Connie here?’ They’ve got stories about when they used to watch Connie race back in the day. For me, driving his race car is something pretty special. I didn’t ever think I’d get an opportunity to drive for a legend like him, and here we are,” Crampton said. “He’s pretty intimidating, and I don’t want to ever mess up, because he sets the bar pretty high. It’s truly an honor to drive, and I think all four of us at Kalitta Motorsports just look to the boss and really enjoy getting to drive his race cars.”

FORGET ABOUT IT! – Scott Palmer’s Magic Dry Organic Absorbent Dragster flirted a little with the guard wall during the final Top Fuel qualifying session as he secured the No. 12 starting spot and a first-round meeting with No. 5 starter Mike Salinas in Sunday in eliminations. The culprit appeared to be a couple of dropped cylinders as Palmer crossed the finish line. But Palmer pooh-poohed any talk about scary moments. “I’m a Pro Mod guy,” he said. “And none of the Pro Mod guys would think that was close.”

 

HATES SITTING OUT – Clay Millican’s team opted to sit out the final Top Fuel qualifying session, and he said, “We are not running this lap, and I hate that because you know I love stomping on that loud pedal.” But the West Tennessee native from Drummonds will compete out of the No. 11 position and start his race day against No. 6 Austin Prock.  “We made such a good run earlier today. I mean, I hate it because, I’ve been saying it all weekend, this is my favorite place to race. Having won this in 2017, my first NHRA event, I love Bristol. I love this racetrack,” Millican said.

 

TODD IS MASTER AT CROSSOVER EXPERIENCES – Current Funny Car champion JR Todd claims his class is the toughest of all.

Believe him.

He has he won eight races in a Top Fuel dragster and as many in a Funny Car, mastering the move to the closed-body, shorter-wheelbase Funny Car with a series title in just his second season in the DHL Toyota Camry. But Todd has experienced many other forms of motorsports and shared experiences with other high-profile drivers. So he has a better idea than most what’s involved and appreciates all the nuances of various styles of racing.

Most recently, Todd finally got to spend some time with NTT IndyCar Series star Ryan Hunter-Reay of Andretti Autosport just before the Chicago race. They were racing at Bell Isle, right outside of downtown Detroit. So their schedules finally meshed.

They went to Kalitta Air at the airport, at Willow Run [at Ypsilanti, Mich.] and got in the 747 simulator and tried to become a pilot. It didn’t work out so well for me. He actually did pretty well. I didn’t, but it was a lot of fun.”

Hunter-Reay isn’t a pilot. “He said he’s never flown before,” Todd said, “so for his first time landing a 747, he did really well, I’d say.”

Last month, Todd squeezed into fellow Wix-sponsored teammate Sage Karam’s NTT IndyCar Series Dreyer & Reinbold cockpit at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and immediately erased his assumption that it might be akin to a Top Fuel dragster.

“They’re so laid out. Your feet are so far in front of you. It’s a tight fit,” Todd said of Karam’s set-up. And they’ve got a lot going on with the steering wheel.”

Todd also got to ride in the back of a custom two-seater with Mario Andretti. He said his spin around the famous Brickyard oval “was way cool. To be able to do it with Mario Andretti driving was a dream come true. Going into the corner like that, I thought, ‘No way this thing is going to stick.’ That just shows how much downforce one of these things has. It gives you a new perspective and respect for what they do going around the corner here at 220 mph. I cannot imagine that.

“We go fast and pull a lot of G’s, but it is in a straight line. We don’t deal with lateral Gs like that. Going into a corner, it pins your hands up against the side. It is just a different sensation. That is by far the fastest I have gone turning left,” Todd said. “We deal with a lot of Gs going in a straight line, and you are aren’t going as fast as we do, but you are going fast through a corner, which means you are dealing with a different type of g-forces than we are. I can see why these guys need to work on their neck muscles to keep their head from moving around there. That would wear me out, going 500 miles around this place. I was trying to keep my neck straight so I could see what was going on, but it was trying to ping your head to the side of the car.

“It was my first time in a two-seater. I was able to come out here [to the IMS] last year and make some laps in a stock car, which was a lot of fun. But riding with [Andretti] in a two-seater around here kind of trumps that,” he said.

Todd was the epitome of cool when in 2016 he rode along with Formula Drift star Ken Gushi in his GReddy Racing Toyota at Evergreen Speedway at Monroe, Wash.

“I didn’t have anything to hang onto. I had both hands on my phone, videoing the whole time. So I was somewhat relaxed.” The car deliberately fishtailed and flirted with the concrete wall, but Todd said, “I didn’t have time to be scared.”

The skidding, tire-shredding Tilt-A-Whirl-like sprint roughly compared to a drag-racing pedalfest gone amok. Gushi’s 870-horsepower race car was no match for Todd’s 11,000-horsepower race car. A single cylinder of the eight cylinders in Todd’s dragster produces 750 horsepower. Gushi’s car accelerates from zero to 60 mph in 3.6 seconds; Todd’s would be stopping by that time. Todd’s car launches from zero to 60 in about six-tenths of a second, and his can top 300 mph before a person can finish reading this sentence. But Todd was grinning when he stepped from Gushi’s Toyota.

“It’s pretty impressive seeing these four-cylinder and six-cylinder cars the amount of horsepower they're making and burning the tires off in a different way than what we're used to. These things make a lot of power for what they are. They're definitely out of control but in control. They’re inches away from the walls and barriers out here and going at a high rate of speed and in control,” Todd said. “It's a different style of burnout than I'm used to, for sure. We don’t turn on our burnouts. The only drifting I've ever done is in the snow in Indiana, and usually it's unintentional.

“There's definitely times, when you stay in the gas a little too long, it seems like you’re drifting out there in a straight line on a thousand-feet strip and you’re supposed to be going dead straight. But it’s nowhere near sideways like these guys. They want to be sideways. They're going for style points. I'm definitely not going for style points in drag racing – just Mello Yello points, as many of those as I can get.”

Sometimes Todd has gotten to drive in his crossover events. In 2016, he and Kalitta Motorsports teammate Richie Crampton, in Crampton’s words, “got our helmets handed to us” in a midweek challenge with NASCAR Camping World Truck Series stars Rico Abreu and Matt Crafton. Todd led a few laps at the so-called “Vineyard Bowl” before crashing his outlaw kart on the eighth-mile dirt track on Abreu’s property in California. The dirt-bike-engine-powered machine was equipped with aerodynamic wings but was tame with a top speed of around 80 mph. Still, Todd said, “My arms got tired.”

Todd learned about Global Rallycross in 2017, in a closed-course go-round at Lucas Oil Raceway, a stone’s throw from where he lives in Avon, Ind. Rallycross’ Alex Keyes was the tutor at the 10-turn circuit staked out in the paved lot where the Kalitta Motorsports team parks Todd’s DHL Camry at NHRA’s U.S. Nationals. Todd knows the fast way down the dragstrip there, but this was a new task entirely. Todd said, “You are shifting gears going all the way around the course. It’s easy to go as fast as you can on the straightaways, but then you got to get on the brakes to get on the corners that are always coming up.”

Not a lot translates on how to drive a Funny Car, but those experiences have their benefits.

“Certain things, like when we get in their element, their cars, it definitely gives you more perspective and respect for what they do,” Todd said. “When I got to the ride along with Mario Andretti, we weren’t going near as fast as the Indy cars do at the Speedway, but it gives you a whole new sensation for what those guys are going through. Getting to sit in Sage Karam’s car . . . I’ve never sat in an Indy car before so that to me, shows what they go through, it’s pretty cool. But at the same time, we talked about this the other night on Nomex Effect, our podcast. When I get to do things like race go-karts or get in a dirt car, try different things, to me that makes me a better driver, just because it gives you that seat-of-your-pants type deal. To me that all translates over to the Funny Car where I think it just helps you pick things up better.”

With more racing colleagues becoming aware of Todd and drag racing through his crossover promotions, he said he isn’t trying to impress anybody extra.

“I never think like that. I feel like I’ve had the same mentality that I’ve had since Day One of getting in this thing,” Todd said. “I’m out to prove to myself that I’m capable of driving this thing and that I deserve to be driving it. It’s different. When you’ve got the Number 1 on the side [of the car] people are paying a lot more attention but that doesn’t change my mindset as a driver. I just want to go out there and do the best that I can and try to be the best driver out here. That’s why I am so hard on myself as a driver because I expect the best out of myself. No matter what, I don’t feel pressure from outside. The only pressure I feel is whatever I put on myself. A lot of people have said, ‘You need to stop being so hard on yourself.’ But I expect a lot out of myself so that’s why I am hard on myself.

“You want to win every week. So when you lose, especially if I feel like it’s my fault or something like that, then I beat myself up. Basically learn from what I did wrong in my mind and try to correct that and not do it again. You can’t dwell on things. That will eat at you. There’s a lot of mistakes that I make inside the car that people on the outside don’t see, so that’s where I always try to get better.”

RECORDS STAY SAME – Bristol Dragway’s nitro-class records – some dating back as far as 2015 – remained intact through qualifying. Still the standard are Tony Schumacher’s 2015 elapsed-time mark of 3.745 seconds that Steve Torrence matched in June 2016. Larry Dixon still owns the Top Fuel speed record at 331.04 mph – good since 2015.

Doug Kalitta earned his 50th low-qualifier award Saturday with a 3.755-second pass, and Steve Torrence ran the fastest speed this weekend so far at 326 mph flat.

In Funny Car, no one could lower Ron Capps’ June 2016 E.T. record of 3.884 seconds or Del Worsham’s 329.42 mph speed mark, also from 2016.

John Force retained his No. 1 spot with class-bests of 3.911 seconds and 326.95 mph.

NOT TO JINX HIM, BUT . . .  – Lex Joon, who qualified 15th in the Top Fuel order, will try to keep his streak going in eliminations Sunday, starting with No. 2 Leah Pritchett. In his career, Joon never has lost on a holeshot or committed a red-light foul.

 

NHRA THUNDER VALLEY NATIONALS – FRIDAY NOTEBOOK

KALITTA STARTS 500TH EVENT AS TOP QUALIFIER, FORCE TOPS IN FUNNY CAR AS HE LOOK FOR MEMORABLE FAMILY FEAT, LANGDON ALSO HOPES TO MAKE HISTORY, RACERS PONDER FATHERS DAY DYNAMICS AT BRISTOL


KALITTA HITS 500-RACE MARK – Doug Kalitta is competing in his 500th race this weekend, and the Michigan veteran said in his trademark low-key manner, “When you think about it, 500 races, that is a lot of races.”

In that time, the Mac Tools Dragster driver who swiped the provisional top qualifying position Friday has won 45 times, making him second on the all-time list among active drivers (he’s five behind Antron Brown) and fifth overall. He has won 666 elimination rounds and started from the No. 1 position 49 times. Kalitta has advanced to 97 finals, meaning he has reached the final round at almost every fifth event.

“I have been lucky to have a career this long, and I have to thank Connie and everyone at Team Kalitta for all their support. I love strapping into this Mac Tools Top Fuel Dragster and racing against some of the toughest competitors in drag racing,” he said. “I tell people all the time that there is nothing more exciting than seeing a Top Fuel dragster make a perfect run at over 330 mph. The only thing better is sitting behind the steering wheel.

“I have been fortunate to have great teams and great marketing partners. Mac Tools has been a huge part of my success and I can’t thank them enough. We have won a lot of races over the years and we are looking forward to winning many more,” Kalitta said.

His Bristol Dragway performance has been outstanding, too. Six of those 97 finals have come here since 2009. He won here in 2006, 2005, and 2001. His most recent final round was in 2014.

“There is something about Bristol Dragway that is special. Every track has something unique but when you roll into Thunder Valley you know you are in a special place,” Kalitta said. “We have won a lot of rounds of racing here, and we would love to park this Mac Tools Dragster in the winners circle at our 500th race.”

He’s overdue. Since winning the first race of the year, the Winternationals at Pomona, Calif., Kalitta has made it out of the second round only three times in nine races. However, he has been consistent enough and qualified in the top half of the field at every event except Gainesville, and that presence has earned him the No. 2 spot in the standings. He led in points after four of the first five races and hasn’t dipped past third all season.

Everyone would like to be the leader, but Kalitta indicated he’s satisfied at the moment to be where he is in the order: “When you are No. 2 in the points, you are in a good position, for sure. They will reset the points after Indy and bunch everyone up, so I am not worried about the gap between No. 1 and No. 2. We just want to keep being consistent and work on getting more win lights on Sunday. This class is as tough as I have ever seen it. I am glad I have the experience that I do because I think it will definitely help the rest of the season.”

WANTS GOLDEN PRESENT FOR DAD – Austin Prock can see his and his team’s hard work paying off, and he’s thinking big on Fathers Day weekend. The rookie in the Montana Brand / Rocky Mountain Twist Dragster had a career-best weekend at the most recent race, at Topeka, taking the No. 3 starting spot and reaching his first semifinal round.

Despite having to line up against teammate Brittany Force for the second time this season in the quarterfinals a week ago, it was a great weekend for Prock, for he improved in the standings from 10th to ninth. And he’s eager to see more “magic” from his crew chiefs – and maybe to present his dad – Robert Hight crew chief Jimmy Prock – with a Wally statue for Fathers Day.

“This Montana Brand / Rocky Mountain Twist team is just coming off our best result of the season. We finished in the semis, and I’m really looking forward to continuing to get better and better into the next race and the rest of the season. We’ve made improvements each weekend, and everyone is working great together. Mike Green and Ronnie Thompson are really working their magic,” Prock said. “I’m pumped. I think it’s going to be a good race weekend for us after what we accomplished last weekend. I’m hoping we can make it some rounds on race day and I’m hoping for a golden Father’s Day present for my old man.”

This is Prock’s first opportunity to race at Bristol Dragway but he wants to be the third John Force Racing driver to win here. Boss John Force, who’s going once more for his record-extending 150th victory, and company president Robert Hight won here in 2011.

PRITCHETT NEEDS TO REBOUND – Leah Pritchett, back in her Don Schumacher Racing-owned dragster with Mopar livery, is determined to reverse a slight skid of three first-round losses.

“We’re happy to be back in our consistent MOPAR Top Fuel Dragster this weekend and make that power on the mountain. Sometimes when you come off a challenging situation like we had in Topeka, there’s nothing better than getting back on the horse, back on the track, and that’s what we’re doing. Switching up the mojo here a little bit, and we’re definitely due for a win. Just getting into the show isn’t cutting it,” she said. “We need to be in the top-half of the field and really gunning for low E.T. to get a good spot to start eliminations.”

Pritchett said, “The beauty of back-to-back races is you can take that information from the previous race and apply it to the next. And for us, that’ll be Saturday of Topeka. We weren’t able to use that race-day info come Sunday in Kansas because the conditions were so different, but it’s not like we’ll throw that information away. We recycle it. Going into Bristol, we’ll have a bit of a head start, using what we learned during qualifying in Topeka and applying it to qualifying in Bristol.”

 

BROWN FEELS BRISTOL VIBE – Lee Greenwood’s hit song “God Bless The U.S.A.” touches an extra-special spot in the hearts of NHRA fans at Bristol. When he sings, “From the lakes of Minnesota to the hills of Tennessee . . .” a sentimental feeling washes over one sitting in the grandstands that snuggle up to the Thunder Valley mountainside. Top Fuel driver Antron Brown, though he’s a New Jersey native and a current Indiana resident, gets it. The Matco Tools Dragster driver is stirred by emotion whenever he camps in for the weekend here. But actually, it’s because of the rich history at this racetrack.   

“Every time you look up into the grandstands at Bristol, you see the names of NHRA legends, and you’re reminded of the history that they made at this historic place. Bristol is one of those what I call ‘racing capitals’ that we go to where people just love when we come into town. We light that nitro up in between those mountains, and that’s what really gets me up going to Bristol. They call it Thunder Valley for a reason. It’s the whole atmosphere there,” Brown said.

The three-time series champion hasn’t won a race this season and never has won at Bristol. But the 2011 runner-up here and 2010 top qualifier might break his winless streak.

“Coming off of Topeka, our Matco Tools Toyota team is definitely headed in the right direction. We just need to keep pushing forward and keep on marching and do what we do. I’m feeling really confident in my team. They’ve been giving me a great race car, and we’ve just been growing and getting stronger each and every week. We’re hoping we can put four good qualifying laps together, gain some bonus points there, and have a great race day. That’s our mindset going in. Looking forward to getting out to Bristol and having some fun,” he said.

Weather forecasts this week have varied, but Brown was anticipating cooler temperatures and predicted Friday night qualifying would be “definitely a triple throw-down session” that “will really set the tone for the weekend.”

He’s going for his 67th career victory, which would include 16 in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class.

Steve Torrence

FATHER-SON DYNAMICS – NHRA fans know well the story of Steve Torrence and dad Billy Torrence, who work together, live across the street from one another, and work together at Capco Contractors, Inc., the pipeline construction and maintenance business Billy established in 1995.

But this Fathers Day weekend, Steve Torrence reiterated just how special it is that the two of them raced for the trophy at Topeka in the most recent Mello Yello Drag Racing Series event and that the Countdown to the Championship could see two Torrences this fall. In itself, it’s remarkable, but the younger Torrence said, “This is a family team supported by a family business. My dad races when he can, but this is a busy time of year for pipeliners."

What’s more, he said, “We don’t make money drag racing. We do it because we love it. And I think that’s what this sport was built on. What it’s all about is die-hard fans, people that want to work on their car in the garage and then bring it out to the track on weekends and race it and feel like they can relate to what we’re doing. That’s how my dad started. I grew up watching him race sportsman cars [in Super Gas, Super Comp, and Competition Eliminator], and that’s how I learned to love the sport.  Drag racing was always something we did as a family.”

Steve won the family final-round battle at Topeka to claim is fifth straight victory and his 11th in the past 16 races. With it has come some ribbing – good-natured and maybe some not-so-good-natured.

“I’ve caught a lot of flak since I’ve gotten here that I was beating up on my dad. Thing is, we’ve had some really, really good races over the last couple years, and I don’t think any of ’em have been more than a hundredth or a hundredth and a half at the stripe. It has been some really tight, close racing. And it definitely puts a hush to the naysayers that say we don’t race or that ‘he laid down,’” Steve Torrence said. “It was a special race, to be able to go No. 1 and No. 2 Friday and Saturday and then go back out there on Sunday and go all the way down to the final round and have as tight a race as we did. It was probably one of those most memorable I’ve had in my racing career, to be able to say me and Billy ran the table on ’em, being one and two and finishing the way we started.”

That Topeka triumph opened a massive lead for Torrence in his bid for a second straight title, but he knows all too well how all those points evaporate when the Countdown begins. Nevertheless, he wouldn’t mind matching his feat from the 2018 playoffs, when he set an NHRA precedent by winning every one of the six Countdown events.

He won’t do it against his father this weekend. Although Billy Torrence’s name is on the entry list, he is back home at Kilgore, Texas, tending to Capco business. Steve Torrence said he plans to fly home quickly Sunday, to fulfill his own responsibilities at Capco, which include bidding jobs and entertaining clients. While he’s planning to make a quick exit, Torrence said he does love coming here: “It’s unbelievable . . . to hear the echo and hear the rumble, hear the thunder of Thunder Valley. It’s always fun to come here. I’ve won here once on Fathers Day (in 2013, when his dad also was home, taking care of Capco business). And we’d like to carry this momentum that we’ve got right now and continue the streak and definitely send one of these Wallys home to Billy for Fathers Day.”

And saying, “Success breeds confidence, and confidence breeds success,” he said he knows he has the team to do it.

“I’ve got a really good team, a really good group of guys. They are the reason for the success that we have.  When you see teams that go out and do well and continually win, it’s guys that have been together for years and they just work well together.  That’s what we have. We’re all blessed to be part of this team that we’re part of. It’s a band of brothers,” Torrence said.

FERRE MAKING BIG STRIDES – Top Fuel rookie Cameron Ferre said his Terry Haddock-owned American Flowtech Dragster is beginning to show off a little bit.

“Actually, we’re making some really big strides. Last week [at Topeka] we made my career best, which was a 3.88 [-second elapsed time] in the first round, so that was really cool. We’re just going to try to develop and continue with that and gradually go faster and faster,” the Huntington Beach, Calif, resident said. “Obviously, it all requires funding, so we’re doing our best with what we have. As we’re out here, hopefully we can acquire more partners and do it more. That’s the biggest thing – the more qualifying runs we make the more we can learn, the faster we can go, and that requires funding.”

His association with Haddock originally was a one-race opportunity, but it has stretched to nearly a dozen. Ferre was driving Johnny Ahten’s A-Fuel car at last fall’s Las Vegas race. And Racepak Data owner Todd Paton, for whom he has worked for 11 years as marketing manager, told him that weekend, “Hey, I think Terry’s looking for a driver for Pomona.”

Ferre said, "I was looking for someone to keep my license current. It was just going to be a one-time thing just to keep my license current and here we are 12 races later. It’s been cool. We work really well together. He’s given me an opportunity to come out here and showcase what I can do. I’m helping him and he’s helping me, so it’s been a great relationship so far.”

He said he “absolutely” is surprised – and “super-grateful” – that the chance has lasted.

“We’re at No. 11, and we’re still doing it. We took the approach of, ‘If we’re out here and even though we only make one qualifying run, we’re out here showing people what we can do instead of sitting on the couch and saying, ‘I wish we could do this.’ We may not run every qualifying run, but we’re here, saying, ‘Hey, if a marketing partner wants to join the white trailer and the open cars, we’re here to show them that we can do that.’”

Ferre devotes most of his attention to working on the clutch of his own car but makes time to help Haddock crew chief Johnny West with the clutch on Haddock’s Funny Car, “just depending on how many crew guys we have at the time. I’m kind of everywhere.” He said he’s trying to be a one-man band: “You’ve got to figure out how to work on them and drive them.”

In the hours before qualifying began Friday, Ferre spoke with fans, some of whom talked about Street Outlaw racing. In that, he found a way to plug Racepak Data. He said he was happy to do that: “I’m very grateful to them. They let me come out here and do this kind of stuff. I’ve been there 11 years, and it’s been a good relationship.” The fans’ interest in Street Outlaws energized him. “Yeah,” he said, “this is a good market for them. I believe they sold this place out, when they did some sort of a TV show here. They seem to really like it around here. Drag racing seems to be thriving in this part of town.”

Through all the chaos of working hard to service and prepare his dragster and greeting fans, Ferre also displayed his sense of humor. His 34th birthday is coming up July 24, but he looks much younger.

”It’s funny . . . when my wife and I walk through the grocery store, because my wife is really short, too, [people] think we’re like 17. And we have a baby. So they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, are they on Teen Mom?’”

OUCH – Rob Wendland, crew chief for Terry McMillen, is hobbling around Bristol Dragway this weekend. He injured his foot and ankle just four days ago, after the Topeka race. He said he stepped out of his RV late at night, lugging an armload of laundry, and caught the edge of a sidewalk by his house and twisted his foot. “He twisted it sideways,” McMillen said, indicating the degree of swelling by opening his hands to the side of a beach ball. Wendland said, “It broke off a chunk of bone with it. My toes are all black.” He said he visited the hospital the night he was hurt and will see a doctor when he gets back to Indianapolis following this race. 

  

WANTED MORE – Clay Millican was fourth-quickest in the opening Top Fuel qualifying session with an elapsed time of 3.837, but crew chief Mike Kloeber said right after the pass that he has hoped for a 3.78 or 3.79. He predicted passes in the 3.6-second range in the night session, but his prediction was incorrect, as Doug Kalitta improved from fifth place in the first session to lead all qualifiers with a 3.755-second run in his Mac Tools Dragster. Millican, meanwhile dropped to 12th place in the evening session.  

 

LANGDON EYES BRISTOL HISTORY – Shawn Langdon is trying to become the first driver ever to win in Top Fuel and Funny Car at Bristol Dragway. He has won here twice in the Top Fuel class, in 2014 and 2016, but he’ll make history if he can put his Kalitta Motorsports-owned Global Electronic Technology Toyota Camry Funny Car in the winners circle Sunday.

He took the provisional No. 2 starting spot Friday with a 3.944-second pass that fell in line behind only John Force’s 3.911.

This third consecutive weekend of racing started at Joliet, Ill., with Langdon earning his season-best No. 4 qualifying starting position. He said, “We are making so many quick runs. I really have a lot of confidence in this Global Electronic Technology Toyota Camry. We are getting great info from TRD [Toyota Racing Development] and Del and Nicky [crew chiefs Worsham and Boninfante] are busting their asses. My crew guys are awesome. I just feel like another win is right around the corner.”

Langdon recorded his first Funny Car victory earlier this season at zMAX Dragway, at Concord, N.C., which, like Bristol Dragway, is another Bruton Smith-owned facility. And with his love of Smith venues and Kalitta Motorsports’ fortune at this one, Langdon is encouraged.

“You look at the facilities Bruton and [son] Marcus Smith have on the NHRA tour, and they are the best of the best.  We love coming to places like Bristol or Charlotte or Las Vegas,” Langdon said. “The fans are treated great, and the facilities are amazing. You always see great on-track action, and Team Kalitta has had pretty good luck in Bristol. With the racetrack in the middle of those mountains, it juts seems like it is louder at Bristol. When you fire up your race car, you just hear the sound bouncing off the mountains. And I know the fans love that.”

He said “It would be cool to be the first racer to get a Top Fuel win and a Funny Car win at a track that has as much history as Bristol. Top Fuel and Funny Cars are so different in how they handle, and that challenge is a lot of fun. When you are sitting behind the motor, you get a completely different feel and look. Plus, when one of these things lets go in front of you, you have your hands full.”

REDEMPTION TIMES TWO? – It still gnaws at 70-year-old John Force that drag racing, a sport he has devoted almost every waking moment to since he was in his early 20s, turned him into an absentee father. The love he had for both his profession and his children played tug-o-war with his heart for years, and far too often drag racing won. But drag racing, heart-breaking in its own right and its own cruel way, gave him the beautiful, redeeming gift of a second chance as his children joined him in what he often calls “the fight.”

So he said he’s hoping this Fathers Day he can share the winners circle with Top Fuel-driving daughter Brittany in a heartwarming story at this already fabled racetrack. (He has a great start as the provisional No. 1 qualifier Friday but was cautious Friday evening, saying, “There’s a lot of cars tomorrow that could change all of that.”)

Brittany Force has her designs on a memorable weekend, as well, with a hint of mystery.

“Thunder Valley, there’s nothing like it. It’s my favorite on the circuit. It’s always special, because it always falls on Fathers Day,” she said. “My dad doesn’t know, but I have something special for him – just a gift I want to give him to let him know how much I appreciate him and everything he’s done, everything he’s taught me. I think he’s going to be blown away by it. It’s going to be pretty cool.”

She said that before she and her dad appeared in a joint press conference before qualifying started Friday, when she revealed her gift. It was a brand-new helmet with a Brute Force logo – the Kenny Youngblood-designed “Brute Force” fist – that she dedicated to her father.

“It’s my thank-you to him, to show him how much I appreciate everything he’s done, everything he has taught me,” she said. “We said this year’s going to be different. We don’t have Courtney out here, but I have my dad. It’s our season. It’s our year,” Brittany Force said.  

For John Force a Funny Car victory by itself would vault him to a plateau he never might have thought possible for a kid who today would be called “disadvantaged,” growing up in a rickety trailer in Bell Gardens, Calif., that today means the world to him because it shaped his outlook. Then again, maybe that 150th victory would be no surprise at all to him. After all, he said if he had continued working as a long-haul truck driver, “I would be head of the Teamsters today.”

Just the same, winning his 150th Wally trophy on the same as his daughter – something he never could do in the pro ranks with Brittany’s now-retired sisters Ashley and Courtney, because they competed in the same class – would be as instant a classic as six-time IHRA Top Fuel racer Clay Millican’s long-awaited first NHRA triumph here in 2017. And eldest daughter Adria, John Force Racing’s CFO back in Yorba Linda, Calif., can count the winnings.  

“To be able to race with my daughters is one of the greatest things in my career,” Force said. “I wasn’t there to help raise them. Their mother [Laurie] did that. I never thought they’d want to race, so to be able to spend time with them out here where I’ve lived all my life, it gave me a second chance to be a dad.”

In a sense, he feels like Courtney Force still is racing with him. He’s driving the car that was hers a year ago. He’s powering toward a record-extending 17th series championship, third in the standings in the Peak Coolant and Motor Oil Chevy Camaro. A victory this weekend would be his fifth at Bristol. He won here in 2004, 2007, 2010, and 2013.

Brittany Force said her Advance Auto Parts Dragster team, buoyed by a 3.69-second pass in the first round of runoffs at Topeka last Sunday, is “finally turning a corner. We’d been struggling the last couple races. But last weekend in Topeka we put a 3.69 on the board. I feel like we are definitely finding our footing moving into the next few races.”

Although she had scored three No. 1 qualifying spots this year, each time alongside a John Force Racing teammate in the Funny Car top position, she never has won at Bristol. But she and her father made history at Houston Raceway Park earlier this spring as the first parent-child tandem to sweep No. 1s in the professional ranks.

LOVE-LOVE RELATIONSHIP – Funny Car veteran Ron Capps has won at Bristol Dragway five times – more than anyone in his class, ever. He has done it the past two seasons. He has done it in tandem with several different crew chiefs. And he has done it by outlasting a track that is at once beautiful and deceptive.

“You sort of feel the mojo, the driver of the NAPA Dodge Charger Hellcat said. “I went to the media tour for the first race here and ever since then, everything has been awesome for me at that track. I got to know a bunch of fans in the area, and every race you roll in there, you just feel like you have something special going on. It’s one of my top-three tracks that I’ll mention to someone who has never been to a drag race. I love the history, and I guess with all that combined, it likes me.

“Bristol is such a cool and historic place, and it starts with the people. There are so many cool people at this race, and it’s just a fun place to go. Every single driver is at the fan fest with all the fans, and that doesn’t happen very often. You’re in Thunder Valley, and the sound is echoing off the hills. It’s just a wonderful facility and a lot of fun,” Capps said.
 
“It’s always hot there, so I seem to do well in the demanding conditions. Last year it was so hot, and the track was tricky, and it was just a battle of attrition. It demands a lot out of the teams in those conditions, and that’s where I seem to thrive,” he said. “When it’s the end of the day and everyone is worn out and you have to dig a little deeper to get the job done and rise to the occasion, I really love it when it’s like that.”

Last June he presented his Funny Car trophy to his dad, John Capps, of San Luis Obispo, Calif. Looking back on that day, Ron Capps said, “If you can stand in the winner’s circle after a win like Bristol, you feel like you accomplished a little more than normal. It’s one of the most demanding races we have, but you want to do well on Fathers Day. I was able to give a trophy to my dad after the win last year, and it’s always fun to do that. It was pretty neat to pull off a win and dedicate it to him.”

Capps won here first in 2001, then repeated in 2006, 2012, 2017, and 2018. He also was runner-up in 2015 and led the field in qualifying the following year. Thanks to back-to-back victories last month at Richmond and Atlanta, he’s fourth in the standings, behind Robert Hight, Tommy Johnson Jr., and John Force.

“We really feel like we’re in the sweet spot of the schedule as a team,” Capps said. “As a crew chief and a team, you want to find your happy spot and what your overall tune-up package is throughout the summer. It can be demanding on a team, but we always look forward to this stretch. You have to pay attention to the parts attrition, but I’ve always been super-proud of the way Rahn [crew chief Tobler] runs the car. He’s methodical about the decisions he makes, and I never want to be mentally or physically at a disadvantage as a driver. I don’t want to be the weak link when it gets late in the day on Sunday.”

DSR RULES IN FUNNY CAR HERE – Don Schumacher Racing has dominated the Funny Car action at Bristol Dragway for the past seven years, winning six times. Ron Capps has won in each of the past two years and in 2012. Tommy Johnson captured the trophy in 2014 and 2016, and Matt Hagan was the winner in 2015. John Force interrupted the DSR streak in 2013.

Johnson, an Iowa native whose parents live not far away in North Carolina now, said, “I’ve won [this] race a few times, and we just always seem to do well there. I seem to do well on Fathers Day weekend, in particular. It’s one of those races I look forward to every year. And coming off the way the cars been running, I like our chances. It would be nice to get back to the final round again. We’ve been to the semis the last four races in a row, so we want to keep that going.”

But no one in the sport’s biggest organization was more emotional when he won than Hagan.

“Bristol is one of the most important races all season to me. It’s my home track. My family is there. My dad is there. When I won that race, I broke down crying,” the Christiansburg, Va., farmer said. “It was such a big moment for me, and it was really special. Thunder Valley carries a lot of passion for me. When you’re surrounded by all the people you love, have all those people supporting you and watching you, it’s just a really special weekend.”

‘CRAZY AND AWESOME’ – Blake Alexander is subbing this weekend for Jonnie Lindberg in Jim Head’s Ford Mustang, as Lindberg continues to get his U.S. citizenship/green-card papers in order in his native Sweden. Alexander put himself in the No. 7 position right off the trailer Friday. So it didn’t take him long to get acquainted with the car.

He said, “I want to pay off all the hard work these guys are doing and their respect this weekend by doing a good job,” Alexander said. He also called the last-minute invitation and thrill of being back behind the wheel in his cameo appearance “crazy and awesome.” His second run was marred by tire smoke, and he ended up 11th at day’s end.  

 

PEDREGON POSITIVE – Snap-on Dodge owner-driver Cruz Pedregon said Fathers Day is a mixed bag of emotions for him. But he’s definitely happy to start this weekend on a positive note.

He and his team have been obsessed with fixing a specific problem since last weekend’s Topeka race. He said crew chief Glen Huszar and assistant crew chief Nick Casertano ironed it out. And Pedregon was fifth in the order early Friday and settled into ninth place overnight.

As for the car issue, Pedregon said, “We've figured it out, and we're ready to race. We've had some solid runs recently in the heat, but the altitude and temperatures in the eastern Tennessee hills will be our focus this weekend. I'm in my comfort zone when tuning the car, so it's a challenge the team and I are ready to meet.

"As a driver, we are so close to the points we need to get into Championship position, and I've got my eye on the prize this weekend: good, clean runs that help us go rounds on race day," he said.

As Fathers Day approaches, Pedregon, a dad himself, is sentimental when thinking about his late father Frank Pedregon Sr. – the drag-racing legend "Flaming Frank” Pedregon.

The elder Pedregon – also the father of FOX-TV analyst and Funny Car champion Tony Pedregon and former driver Frankie Pedregon, as well as daughters Dora and Barbara – is remembered as a fearless racer in his "nitro coupe" who retired from the sport in 1968. He died in a plane crash at age 41 when Cruz was 18 years old. Cruz Pedregon has said, "Like most kids, we wanted to do what our dad did, but my memories of Dad are very little about racing and a lot about life and being there for us and teaching us right from wrong. I always have a heavy heart when we race on Father’s Days, because if it wouldn’t have been for the tough life lessons my dad taught us, who knows where we would be? Right now, I plan on honoring his memory with an outstanding performance in the Snap-on Dodge this weekend."

WILKERSON LEARNS FROM DEDICATED DAD – Tim Wilkerson, a two-time Funny Car runner-up here (2010, 2014), said his Levi, Ray & Shoup Ford Mustang “is responding well, and for the most part it's doing what we ask it to do. I'm real happy about that, and I think we'll have a good race out there. We're hoping we can make a really, really good run or two in qualifying to set us up Sunday, and we'll see what we can do from there. That track can be tricky, but we've got a good car, and for the most part we know what to expect with [this] particular racing surface. It's a neat place, and they've got crazy-good fans out there who just love racing. That makes it a lot of fun."

With two more sessions remining Saturday, Wilkerson is 12th in the order as he preps for a run at his 21st victory.

He has advanced to the final rounds at Gainesville, Las Vegas, and Atlanta this year and was top qualifier in Las Vegas. And he appreciates it all, for he’s the one who said when he won the U.S. Nationals more than a decade ago, “God should let everybody out here win once in awhile. It's just so hard."

So Wilkerson is a patient, understanding, and hardworking man, this owner-driver-tuner from Springfield, Ill. He said those qualities and his ‘people skills’ come from his upbringing.

"My dad ran a Boys Club when I was a kid, for about 12 years," Wilkerson said. "Being the son of the guy that ran the Boys Club, there were some benefits to that -- and some downfalls, because sometimes you got the p--- beat out of you because your old man was mean and threw somebody out. When you were at the Boys Club, you were pretty much protected there.

"But he was really good with kids. And I think that's one reason that I am," he said. "Plus I have a handicapped sister. So that's another reason.” She and their mother were injured in a serious car accident 10 years before he was born and suffered severely impaired vision.

“Having a handicapped sister teaches you a lot about kids. You have to be [compassionate]. We spent the first 10 years of my life driving around, looking for places to have my sister operated on, because she couldn't see. She went through the windshield of the car, and everything she'd see was out of the corner of her eye. So that was our vacation," he said. "Or we'd go to look for a home for her to stay in. It wasn't bad, though. Anyway, that's my idea of why I'm good with people, because I've had a lot of experience being good with people. I think those kids teach you that stuff, teach you a lot of patience," Wilkerson said. "You can't be around kids like that without being patient. And then that resonates being around these cars and the kids that work on these cars."

He and wife Krista have three children of their own, including son Dan, who tunes for Blake Alexander when he runs his Funny Car.

 

 

 

 

 

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