2019 NHRA U.S. NATIONALS - TOP FUEL NOTEBOOK

 

 

       


MONDAY NOTEBOOK

KALITTA POSITIONS HIMSELF FOR PLAYOFFS WITH LONG-AWAITED TOP FUEL INDY VICTORY

Top Fuel veteran Doug Kalitta watched Connie Kalitta – his uncle, team owner, and NHRA pioneer – thrash and toil and persevere to win the U.S. Nationals.

And Monday at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis, it was his turn.

Family history repeated itself, as the Michigan-headquartered airline owner and pilot earned his first victory at the NHRA’s Labor Day classic. His 46th triumph, one he called “a thing of beauty,” came against the year’s surprise racer, Billy Torrence.

With his 4.144-second, 212.43-mph pass on the 1,000-foot course, Kalitta claimed the No. 2 seed in the Countdown to the Championship that will start in two weeks at Reading, Pa.’s Maple Grove Raceway.

Kalitta shared the winners circle with John Force (Funny Car), Alex Laughlin (Pro Stock), and Jerry Savoie (Pro Stock Motorcycle).

What made Kaltta’s accomplishment so special was that it marked Uncle Connie’s 25th-anniversary celebration of his own Indianapolis victory over Eddie Hill in 1994.

“I was running the Silver Crown race [at DuQuoin, Ill.],” the former USAC national sprint-car champion said, “and we had a delay [at Indianapolis]. Connie was running Eddie Hill in the final. I made it here just in the nick of time to see the final. It was a huge deal. He had been trying to win this for a real long time.”

That’s how it all played out for Doug Kalitta, too. He tried 22 times before – since 1998 – and came close with three runner-up finishes, including last year to Terry McMillen.

“I’m a real persistent guy, so I never give up,” he said. “It does make you wonder. though.” He said that after surviving the first round, “I was thinking this is going to be a good opportunity, and I’m just glad we were able to take advantage of it.

“You’ve got to be on your game, and I’m not getting any younger,” Kalitta, 55, said.

But he certainly looked in his prime as he advanced past Clay Millican, the driver who had trailed him by only four points in the standings; Brittany Force, the event’s No. 1 qualifier; and Austin Prock, the class’ hottest rookie driver.

Kalitta defeated Millican in the opening round by three-thousandths of a second on a holeshot.

“These guys out here are all so good. It worked out well just getting by Clay, because those guys are always tough,” he said.

It didn’t get easier. He had to face top qualifier Brittany Force next.

“I just try to stay patient and make sure I go when that light comes on. We try not to worry about who’s in the other lane, but Brittany’s car has been on a rail. She qualified first, so we knew we had a tough run there,” he said. “And it was a close race.”

He wasn’t done meeting John Force Racing drivers. In the semifinal he drew Prock.

“They’ve got quite an arsenal over there,” Kalitta said. “Austin’s doing an awesome job, and I think all of us are trying to keep up with how hard he’s hitting that tree. He left on me by a little bit. Fortunately we were able to get by him.”

The final, Kalitta said, “was kind of ugly. At 800 feet, it seemed like my car was just coasting with no power. I thought it was over, but the win light came on.  It just started spinning the tires, and I’m not sure if it threw the belt off or what happened. It pretty much died out there, but we were close enough to the line. That’s all that matters.

Kalitta said he’s “looking forward to the Countdown. It’s what it’s all about. My guys are going to have plenty of skip in our step heading into the Countdown – including me. We just have to keep our head down and go rounds and try to prevail.” He said his mantra will be “Just don’t suck” and said, “It’s going to be a lot of fun, and I can’t wait to get this going. It’s going to be another great opportunity.”

On Billy Torrence’s way to a runner-up performance of 4.220 seconds at 206.01 mph, the 60-year-old part-time racer bumped McMillen from the playoff line-up.

Torrence, making only his 10th appearance of the season, triggered a new Countdown strategy. In his first nine races, Torrence had victories at Phoenix and Sonoma, Calif., and a runner-up finish to his trophy-hogging son Steve at Topeka. Billy Torrence arrived in Indianapolis just 41 points out of the top 10, and he proved a strong racer doesn’t have to attend all 18 “regular-season” races to be eligible to run for the title. After all, Billy Torrence missed eight of the 18 qualifying races all while Steve Torrence won eight races.

Mike Salinas opted out of a couple of races, as well, and landed fifth in the order.

“It’s still just a six-race shootout,” Steve Torrencxe said. “Yeah, we had a great regular season. We won eight times, and my dad won twice. But when we go to Reading, I’ll just be 20 points ahead of Doug.  We’ve got a great team, a great car, and a great track record, but that’s just history. You still have to perform in the playoffs.”

As he goes for back-to-back series crowns, Steve Torrence can gain some reassurance that 18 of the 48 pro titles decided in the Countdown era have gone to No. 1 seeds, including six of the past nine in Top Fuel.

The U.S. Nationals, with its points-and-a-half system, introduced Billy Torrence to the Countdown mix and shuffled the order a bit. The standings are: 1. Steve Torrence, 2. Doug Kalitta, 3. Antron Brown, 4. Brittany Force, 5. Mike Salinas, 6. Clay Millican, 7. Leah Pritchett, 8. Austin Prock, 9. Richie Crampton, 10. Billy Torrence.

SUNDAY NOTEBOOK - ZIZZO HAS ‘AFTER-INDY’ MANTRA, KALITTA HOPES TO WIN ON 25TH ANNIVERSARY OF UNCLE’S U.S. NATIONALS FEAT

ZIZZO ZONED IN – All anyone can say about T.J. Zizzo is “Che vita folle!” . . . What a crazy life! He loves his Italian heritage. His father, Tony Zizzo, even made a quick stop at competitor Luigi Novelli’s pit tis weekend and delivered a cheerful greeting in Italian to his longtime buddy from back home in Chicagoland. But the Rust-Oleum Rocket knows his background comes with some quirky traits.

“I’m a hard-headed dago, you know? The older I get, the more I’m accepting of people saying, ‘Hey TJ, what about doing it this way?’ Now I might say no right away, like that’s my response, right? My response first thing is always, ‘No.’ But then I’ll go back and I’ll think about what they said, and then I’ll be like, ‘OK.’ Maybe the next time somebody brings that same thing up, I’ll say, ‘OK. Let’s try it.’ Crazy Italians, we are hard-headed – but we work really hard at doing what we’re doing. Nobody gets in our way. That’s the crazy thing. And it’s good, but thankfully I’ve surrounded myself with great people and smart people. Everybody’s smarter than me, so now I’ve got to listen. . . . And [we have] some crazy Germans, crazy Mexicans, all of the above . . . crazy Indian guys . . . we’re all nuts. Heck, yeah, we are.”

At any moment he sounded about ready to break into a chorus of Jimmy Buffett’s song “Fruitcakes.”

So that prefaced his explanation of what his new catch-phrase “A.I.” means.

“So, being a crazy Italian,” Zizzo said, “I’ve always got a lot of projects in me. Always. Like if I don’t have five things going on at one time, I’m not happy, right? So about three weeks ago I was starting to feel the butterflies of Indy, right? You feel those butterflies already in your stomach going, ‘Huh, Indy’s coming.’ So I said to myself, ‘All right,’ [and] I told all our guys in our shop and around me, ‘Don’t let me start any new projects. Any big projects going on right now, let’s just slow those down. Don’t let me get too consumed in them,’ because I get consumed in projects. ‘Let’s wait until after Indy and then I’ll go back to those projects.’ So anything that I’ve started is then put on ‘AI’ to be done Tuesday morning when I get back, because I wanted to concentrate on this race. That was the main focus, so I’m not, seriously, refurbishing our offices, or cleaning out our crawl space, or maybe even cleaning out our loft or our semi. No, let’s just focus on what’s going to win us Indy, and we’ll go from there.’ See, I have a tendency to talk too much about not enough. So that’s maybe my problem.”

So he has traded his “in the process of being renovated” front office – “no carpets, no tile, lights are removed, walls are being painted” – for the outdoor office in muggy, warm Indianapolis, about three or four hours south of his  Lincolnshire, Ill., body and race shop.

This is only his third appearance of the season, but Zizzo – like Billy Torrence and Jordan Vandergriff – is making the most of his limited schedule. He grabbed the provisional No. 1 qualifying position on Day 1 at the Gatornationals in March at Gainesville, Fla., and left with a semifinal finish. At his home race, at Joliet, Ill., he advanced past Leah Pritchett in the opening round of eliminations. So whenever the Zizzos arrive at the track, the buzz always starts about them being an underfunded underdog – until Zizzo takes to the track. Then they know crew chief Mike Kern and the team aren’t messing around. They don’t get lucky; they earn their place in the Top Fuel mix. They're here to win.

However, Zizzo said, "We're not a team that makes big changes. We just continue to work on what we have and continue to improve what we have to make sure we continue to be competitive. We should start where we ended up at Joliet in E2. Or E1. Or Q4. We don't deviate from our plan, and that's by design. That makes us a better team moving forward."

Still, all the stops are out for this race. And it’s a race he talks about in hopeful tones, not uncertain ones: “After I win this race . . . “And why not? Part of the 65-year lore of the U.S. Nationals is unlikely winners, surprise runner-ups, breakout-moment drivers leading the fields, upsets, and plenty of dramatic story lines. So his attitude is one of “Why not me?”  

Zizzo loves the magical lure of it all: "Indy, man . . . it's the big one," he said. "It's what you expect. It's what you want. It's what you want on your resume. When you win that event, that's what you want. That's what I want. It's what our team wants. We'll take it one round at a time. We'll take it one qualifying round at a time, one eliminations round at a time, and then hopefully, at 3:45 p.m. Monday afternoon, I'm holding a Wally. That's the goal.

“And after I win this race . . .”

Before he does, he will need, as the No. 16 starter, to knock off top qualifier Brittany Force in the opening round.

 

KALITTA READY TO SOAR – At the Winternationals this February to start the season, Doug Kalitta brought Top Fuel dominator Steve Torrence back down to Earth from his stratospheric 27-consecutive-round-win orbit. But Torrence simply refueled and blasted off once again into an entire different universe than everyone else in the class.

While Torrence went on a tear of eight victories in 11 final-round appearances through the 17 races before this one and compiled a 47-9 race-day record, Kalitta has cobbled five semifinal finishes into a .500-plus season so far at 21-16 in a class-leading 506 races – and he has been no lower in the standings than third for most of the year. Through the first five races, he led the standings after all but one race (and was second then). Kalitta is the only driver not named Torrence to lead the Top Fuel standings this year. (Billy Torrence briefly led after his Phoenix victory in Race No. 2.)

Back in February, the only time Kalitta has won this season, he said he was happy to last deep into race day. He said, “In the Countdown to end last year, all we were getting is one or two rounds, so to start going rounds today really helped the team’s morale. “

Well, the Countdown is looming again, and Kalitta is hoping to fare better. He entered the U.S. Nationals in third place, just two points behind No. 2 Brittany Force. A victory here would put him in excellent position for the six-race playoff, but it also would make up for the frustration of being runner-up at Indianapolis three times. Last year, he lost to Terry McMillen in the final round.

“We had a wild day last year,” Kalitta said. “We lost an engine in the first round and got around Antron [Brown] in the second round. I got a holeshot win to get to the final, and then against McMillen it was a very close race. I thought I had him, but we were just a little short. That is what makes Indy special. We will be ready this weekend.”

Kalitta has been in the top half of the order during qualifying, pondering overnight a possible eighth-place start in Monday’s eliminations.  After two qualifying passes Sunday, the Mac Tools Dragster driver indeed will begin his quest from the No. 8 slot. He’ll face Clay Millican, the man he owns a four-point lead over, in Round 1. So this match-up Monday will be one with playoff-seeding significance. Kalitta is 1-3 against Millican so far this year.

The Michigan-headquartered airline owner would love to win here at Indianapolis and follow in the footsteps of uncle and team owner Connie Kalitta, whose lone U.S. Nationals victory came here in 1994, 25 years ago.

To do that, Doug Kalitta said, “I think it would be amazing. I can’t really think about that now. For a race like Indy you have to stay focused for so long. We have been close before, and we are going after it with everything we have. I am really happy with this Mac Tools team. We have been together for a long time, and I think we are ready for Indy and the final six races after that. This Mac Tools team is ready for the race and the Countdown.”   

When he won the first rave in the “regular season,” Kalitta made some history, becoming the first driver in 16 years (since Larry Dixon in 2002-2003) to earn back-to-back victories in Top Fuel at the Pomona, Calif., kickoff. Now he’s ready to make some more, starting with this final “regular-season” race.

NEW STYLE OF FAST FOOD? – Three years ago, Austin Prock earned a degree in culinary arts from the Art Institute of Indianapolis. And this past Monday he had a chance to show it off in a cooking segment for a local television station.

One of John Force Racing’s sponsors is Pit Boss grills, so the fare in the hospitality area comes from those, including smokers. But Prock is creative, and he said, “I didn’t want to just grill a hamburger or a chicken kebab, so I was a little bit nervous. I came up with something on the fly and cooked it at about nine o’clock the night before and crossed my fingers that it was going to taste good.”

His creation? It was a Krispy Kreme donut-crusted buffalo chicken that received rave reviews.

“It was like a remix of chicken and waffles,” Prock said. “It came out awesome, and they loved it. So it was something creative, and I love doing that, trying new things.

“I’d like to actually open up a restaurant one day, a restaurant or a food truck or something like that. That’d be fun,” he said.

“I’ve worked in restaurants, pretty much my only two jobs have ever been this and cooking at a Greek restaurant. I was one of the chefs there and helped run the restaurant for a couple years,” he said. “It’s not open anymore. The owner actually ended up passing away, a good friend of ours. But I worked there all through high school and then the years I was working in college up until I got this gig two or three years ago.”

Prock has a handful of mentors. Fans know about his grandfather, Tom Prock, and father, Jimmy Prock. They know about John Force and Don Prudhomme and Tony Stewart. But perhaps few know about Jonny Roscher. He’s the former John Force Racing chef who operates Za’s Lakefront Bar and Grill at Lake Tahoe.

“I’ve always loved cooking. Jonny Roscher kind of got me started cooking. I’d come to the races and I’d help him in the kitchen here when I wasn’t helping on the car. I just got that bug, and it’s really my only other hobby. I don’t have any hobbies. I race and that’s it. So cooking is kind of my go-to when I do have free time. It’s just something that I love to do. And I like that when we are free, have family over. I don’t like cooking for one or two people – I always have a big group of people over, and I just make a big deal out of it,” Prock said.

He said he doesn’t have a specialty: “I’m always shooting off the hip. I never write anything down, never use any other recipes.”

He might be learning the recipe for success in Top Fuel, but in the kitchen he’s all set.

PALMER MORE AGGRESSIVE – At Pomona, Scott Palmer said he was ready to “get aggressive” and “live out on that ragged edge” this season. No more playing defense, he said. It’s all about offense for the Magic Dry/Marck Dragster owner-driver.

"It's time to get aggressive," he said. "Last year we learned how to run low 3.7s, but then we got a little conservative and tried to protect our position in the points. The deal is you really can't do that and expect big things. You have to run 3.7s to win races, and that requires swinging for the fences at the right moments in qualifying and all day long on race day. I've decided we're going to live out on that ragged edge a lot more this year.”

It resulted in Palmer reaching the final round at Epping, N.H., although he like so many others fell to Steve Torrence. Despite that flash of success in July, he came into this final “regular-season” race seven points on the wrong side of the Countdown cutoff. But despite 11 first-round losses this year, Palmer is on the verge of parlaying some points-and-a-half arithmetic into his third straight Countdown appearance.

Qualifying higher on the ladder – for this race and for the whole season – is key  to the strategy, the Magic Dry Organic Absorbent / Marck Dragster said.

"If there was one thing I wish we'd done better last year, it would have been to qualify higher on the ladder every race. There are just all kinds of benefits to being in the top half of the field, and we weren't there enough,” Palmer said. “No more being conservative and trying to hold a spot in the points. We want to pour it all on and see how we do. We have four new crew members, two veterans, and a couple of rookies, including one of the hardest-working women I've ever been around. I was really proud of the way everyone worked together in testing, and I think we've got the strongest group I've ever been around.

“There’s no more pressure because we’re just going to try to win Indy, just like anybody else,” he said. “We’re on a mission to try to win a race this year, and we’ll take the consequences of what that’s cost us. We’re trying to learn to win aggressively, and that’s a harder process than people think. Our car runs good enough, and we’re going up there trying to win. Whatever that costs us, we’ll live with it.

“Everything that we have that is new or we could get new is in the trailer for this race,” Palmer said. “We’re going to go up there and run as hard as we can. We’ve had some parts problems that have hurt us, but we’ve regrouped and we feel good. Now we’re going there to try to win, and it’s going to be exciting and cool to be a part of it. We’re definitely going to make sure we enjoy it.”

No. 13 qualifier Palmer is 0-3 this season against Mike Salinas, his opening-round opponent Monday.  

LIFE GOOD FOR LUIGI – Luigi Novelli has no real complaints. Business is strong at his National Machine Repair shop at Crete, Ill., just south of Chicago. Evidently plenty of massive mechanical and hydraulic presses are breaking down with enough frequency to keep the longtime drag racer – and his Top Fuel car – fed. At age 77, he’s still wrestling with heavy equipment, such as one with a 58,000-pound flywheel that he serviced last month.

And even though he – along with Pat Dakin, Cameron Ferré, and Lex Joon – didn’t qualify, Novelli was at peace.

“It’s a good life,” he said.

Novelli, known as “The Rodfather” and recognized for years by his long, braided ponytail, did describe his life as “crazy.” The ponytail is gone, sacrificed because he reached a performance goal – officially. Truth be told, Novelli said, “I can tell you – I got sick of combing and braiding. Then on the weekend when you race, you sweat like a dog, and it smells. You’ve got to have it [tied] up. By the end of the day, cut if off, that’s it.”

Yes, life for Luigi Novelli is crazy, but good.

He nodded his head at his dragster that builder Murf McKinney recently front-halved and said, “This is one crazy part.” Novelli, who divorced after 49 years of marriage, denied he was going steady these days with his dragster. Teased that the car was his girlfriend, Novelli shot back, “That’s not the only one!” With a wink, he said, “You’ve got to get in trouble a little. You can’t live in a cocoon, right?”

Ah, yes, life is good for Luigi Novelli.

He recalled that in 1976, the final year that the Top Fuel class had a 32-car bracket, it also had 103 entrants. And the entire qualifying procedure, the atmosphere, was completely different than today’s regimented one.

“You never did this,” Novelli said, glancing around the pits, where teams had their designated work spaces with expensive awnings and hospitality “suites.” He said when he first started competing in the U.S. Nationals, in 1967, “you made a run – you got back in line. You serviced your car in line. But you didn’t have to do hardly anything: run the valves, change the oil, cool the clutch. You got enough time to check on the bearings. That’s what we used to do.”

Novelli has been drag racing for more than a half-century, starting with a ’53 Ford A-Gasser in 1962. He moved to an A-Fuel Altered, then in the mid-1960s to a ’33 Austin Bantam with a 392 blown Hemi. By the end of that decade, he was racing a front-engine dragster that he built, using a 392 Chrysler Hemi he salvaged from a car that was headed to a junkyard.

Times have changed. And despite the fact he’s still in the Top Fuel mix, Novelli said, “We don’t belong here. Well, we do and we don’t. We qualify and we do good. Then we get in the middle of the race and we’re all out of parts.”

He said the sponsorship race and big money came into the sport and that has “made it impossible.” He called that new era “the beginning of the end.” He said, “It’s not peaches and cream. When Tony Schumacher doesn’t have a ride, something’s screwy.”

But he has no immediate plans to walk away from this sport he has loved for so long. He said, “I’ve only got 20 years to go.”

In the meantime, he’ll keep working on broken mechanical and hydraulic presses and on his nitromethane-burning race car. He said the machines in his 9-to-5 line of work are “dangerous if you don’t pay attention.” Is the dragster a piece of cake after working with huge machines? “They both can kill you,” he said nonchalantly.

Neither has yet. So for Luigi Novelli, life is good.

 

 

Jordan Vandergriff

TOP ROOKIES SHARE ENCOURAGEMENT – Jordan Vandergriff and Austin Prock both know they’re going to be compared and their names linked throughout their Top Fuel careers. And neither minds it. The sport hasn’t seen anything like it since Shawn Langdon and Spencer Massey broke into the NHRA Top Fuel ranks a decade ago.

Naturally they want to beat each other on the track – and Prock has defeated Vandergriff in their lone meeting, at Houston. But they have no animosity at all toward each other away from the starting line. In fact, they understand each other’s route to drag racing’s professional ranks and respect and like each other.

“I get that we have a big competition going for this rookie of the year thing,” Vandergriff said of his purported rival and fellow candidate for the Road to the Future Award. “And I get that he has a leg up on me, because he’s run the whole year. He has more chances to win.”

Prock also knows that until his animated victory at Seattle, when he shared the winners circle with John Force for the boss’ 150th Funny Car triumph, Vandergriff had better statistics.

Vandergriff had three semifinal performances in his first seven appearances and an above.-500 round-record at 8-7. In Prock’s first seven starts, he hadn’t gotten past the second round and had a 3-7 record. Prock later recorded one semifinal finish, at Topeka.

“His car was definitely performing better than ours,” Prock said readily.

Austin Prock

Since Seattle, the scale has tipped in Prock’s favor.

“That car was a winning car last year, and they just dropped him in it,” Prock said, correctly reminding that Blake Alexander had a terrific record in a limited run last year in that very car that now carries D-A Lubricants livery. “We’ve kind of been behind the 8- ball. We put a team together two days before the national event. Didn’t have a full crew until Denver. Denver was the first race where we had a full crew to carry through. We’ve changed crew chiefs, new sponsor, new driver, all these things. It hasn’t been an easy road, but it takes time.

“Rome wasn’t built overnight. We’ve been slowly progressing and making sure that we will succeed by taking the right steps and taking it slow. There’s no sense in trying to go up there to run low E.T. when you don’t know how to run low E.T. It might stick once, but you need to put eight runs together, not just one,” he said. “So we took the baby steps and made sure it was going up and down the track. We haven’t been the fastest car, but we’re just now getting to the point where we’re within striking distance. We’re not the fastest car on the track right now but we’re going up and down the track and giving me a shot to use my craft.”

Vandergriff has no delusions and not a snarky streak in him.

“I try to stay humble,” he said, “because I understand that I don’t know anything [by comparison] and these guys [his crew] do their jobs and they’re the best. So I listen. I know I’m not supposed to be here, and these guys have worked their butts off to be here. It’s not like I’m not supposed to be here, but I know my place.

“I went to Frank Hawley’s Drag Racing School and then went straight to Nitro University with Anthony Dicero. It’s crazy when you think about it now. It’s been a fast process for me. Realistically, it’s only been a little under three years since I went to Frank Hawley’s, and I’m already here. Believe me, this is not something to take lightly. There were many nights when I had to get a grip on where I was. It happened so quickly that I had to focus so much more than maybe somebody who’s been doing this for five or 10 years. I had to make sure I knew what it felt like and prepare myself for all of it. And even now, I’m not out here [every race],” Vandergriff said. At Denver, for example, he hadn’t sat in the race car for about six weeks.

He said when he met Prock at Frank Hawley’s Drag Racing School at Gainesville Raceway in Florida, “it seemed like he was 100 steps ahead of me. And he was. And I knew that. Like, coming in, he came with a suit. He came with a helmet. He came with everything. He came with all this experience. And I showed up and I’m like, ‘Frank, I got nothin’.

“He was very gracious,” Vandergriff said of Prock.

“We get compared, and we’re going to be compared for a long time. He’s had a lot more experience, and I know that. His route was different. Everybody’s route’s different. It’s also not a bad thing. I don’t mind. I really don’t mind, especially for me and him now. I think it’s good. We’re the two young guns. That’s really where we are.

“It’s also nice that we didn’t do it separately,” Vandergriff said of their same-year start. “Say if this were his rookie year and I wasn’t running yet, I’m sure he’d be the [top] rookie. But it’s almost more fun to have us young guys together. It really electrifies both of our rookie years.

The Southern Californian said, “I don’t think there’s any pressure. To be honest, I think we’re just out here having fun. I don’t think either one of us expected this – we’re just living the dream. We dreamed about it when we were kids, and now we’re here and it almost just doesn’t feel real. I come out here to beat him, sure. But I also come out here to have fun. We’re running people we grew up watching.”

Prock said he feels similarly.

“I think it is a good thing. It’s good for the sport. Two young rookies, new faces in the sport,” Prock said. “He’s been doing a great job. It’s just good to have a little bit of a rivalry. There hasn’t been a big rivalry in a long time, maybe since like Cruz and Force. That’s kind of a rivalry, but it’s not as hot.

“It’s always good for the sport to have a little confrontation and a little bit of a, ‘I’m choosing Jordan, I’m choosing Austin’ type of deal. Just gets the fans interacting, and that’s what we need.”

Vandergriff said he hopes that “next year we’ll be out here all 24. That’s the plan. I would not say it’s a done deal. It’s something we’ve been working on. D-A has already signed on for next year. Basically, we’re looking for the other half. I’m confident enough that maybe it’ll work out.”

Prock seconded that: “They’re working on getting a full season next year, and I hope it all works out.”

PROCK COMFORTABLE IN HIS ROLE – Austin Prock said, “I kind of thrive off confidence. That’s how I get by. If I don’t feel confident in something, I’m not going to be very good at it. It’s just how I’m built. I’m not afraid to try and back my confidence up. I feel like if you do talk a little smack or make a jab, you have to be able to back it up. Maybe that gives me a little bit more motivation to back it up and do the things that I want to do. If I call someone out, or call myself out, it gives me more motivation to excel and succeed at what I am talking about. So I was never nervous going into Pomona as much as I should have been. I haven’t been nervous all year. I’ll roll up against anybody in the Top Fuel category. And I feel like if I just go up there and do my job, and do the best I can, hopefully the outcome comes our way.”

It's a darn good thing he feels that way. Any other rookie would have been intimidated by remaining unqualified for the sport’s most pressure-packed race of the year after the first two qualifying sessions (even if everyone gets five shots at making the field rather than the customary four).

Austin Prock, whether by genetics or training, simply isn’t one who buys into intimidation. “I’ve been oddly comfortable ever since we got to Pomona,” he said.

He got a whole lot more comfortable late Saturday, breaking into what is the quickest field in class history at No. 13 with a 3.742-second pass at 328.06 mph.

He gained a position in Sunday’s final day of time trials and will line up Monday against No. 5 Richie Crampton. He’s 1-2 against Crampton in their previous meetings.

 “Finally got that monkey off our back this weekend,” Prock said. “We went up there and went back to what we know and went right down there, ran a .74 which is a nice pass.” He said he got [an accurate] look at the ugly weather forecast for Sunday “so we had to make sure we got into the U.S. Nationals. We locked ourselves into the quickest field ever, so to do that at my first U.S. Nationals event and to be a part of that is something special. He had hoped to use two Sunday runs to reach the top half of the field, something he has done eight times in the previous 17 races. Then, he said, he plans “to do some work on Monday,” because he said he had been “itching to get back in the seat at the U.S. Nationals this weekend. I’ve been dreaming of this since I was a kid.”

That might sound funny, considering that by the time Prock arrived at Frank Hawley’s Drag Racing School at Gainesville, Fla., he already had 139 races and 27 circle-track victories. He closed his midget- and sprint-car career with 84 top-five finishes, much of it under the watchful eye of former IndyCar and NASCAR star Tony Stewart.

“I had my brother [Thomas] there right by my side. Between the two of us, we were smart enough to get the job done, and we just surrounded ourselves by great people and ended up meeting up with Tony Stewart at the Fort Wayne Rumble,” Prock said. “I won my first indoor race there, and Tony won the same night. I caught his eye and he did a lot for me. I raced out of his shop for five years and he helped me out tremendously because it was just me and my brother doing it. My dad [John Force racing crew chief Jimmy Prock], he was gone racing all the time. If we wanted to do it, we had to do it on our own. So I had to hustle money and things like that. And Tony was nice enough to let us race out of his shop and use all his product sponsors, just helped us get by and get me to where I’m at now.”

However, he said, “To be honest, I never liked drag racing unless it was a nitro car. I always said I didn’t want to drive anything else unless it was a nitro car. I got the opportunity and I ate it up. I always dreamed of racing a nitro car, but I had no interest in bracket racing or anything like that. I grew up around Top Fuel dragsters and nitro Funny Cars. That’s the baddest drag car on the planet. When you grow up around that, you don’t want to drive anything slower than that. So I went up and did the circle-track [tours] as a young kid. I thought it was awesome that my great-grandfather raced circle track and I could kind of try and go a path that he went, be a little different from the last few generations. But it was just inevitable that I wasn’t going to end up out here after as much success as my grandfather had and my dad has had. It was almost meant to be.”

Prock said he supposed he got his sense of self-worth from both of his parents, including his mother, Jill Prock.

“My dad, he’s confident in his work - and he’s not always confident in his work – but when he is, you can see it on the racetrack. When he goes up there and he’s just confident and he knows what he’s doing, he’s working and everything’s gelling well, he goes on those five-race winning streaks or No. 1 qualifiers weekend after weekend like they have earlier this year. He’s very comfortable, and when he’s comfortable, he’s confident and it shows on the racetrack. When I’m comfortable, it shows. And I have been all year,” he said.

“I’ve been lucky enough to get a good group of guys all around me that all believe in me. They tell me I do a great job, and that gives me confidence. I know that they do a great job and I don’t want to be the weak link. I’ve said that from the get-go. Because if I was the weak link on this team, I would get a ton of heat from a lot of people,” Prock said. “You know crew guys. They’re like brothers to me. They’ll be on my ass and if I screwed up they’d be the first ones to tell me. I’ve got big shoes to fill. I’ve got John Force behind me, Don Prudhomme, my dad, my grandpa. If I didn’t succeed, I’d get a lot of heat from the fans: ‘He doesn’t belong here,’ stuff like that, and I don’t want that rap. I want to make sure everyone knows that I am meant to be here and I live it, eat it, breathe it. I think we’ve been doing a good job of that.”

He has found his niche in the world of media and interviews, and he knew from the start not to try to get attention like seasoned entertainer John Force does.

“A lot of people have told me, ‘Just be you.’ That’s the easiest way to do it, because then it’s always the same. The fans notice that. They’ll tell me they watch drivers and they just sound fake up there. And a lot of the fans say to me, ‘I love how natural you sound.’ Like, organic. It’s good for the sport, good for the sponsors, just I think it’s the way it should be done.”

Now he’s ready to show the same about his driving.

GREEK STRUGGLING – Chris Karamesines said in a social media post that he didn’t attempt a late Saturday (Q3) pass because he “discovered a front tire going flat as we were ready to run.” He didn’t get a single run with his Lucas Oil Dragster in the first three chances.

 

BROWN BOUNCES BACK – For an undisclosed reason, officials disqualified Antron Brown’s early-Saturday pass of 3.678 second and 327.19 mph, leaving him with his opening run of 3.729, 328.06 in the Matco Tools Dragster. He called the decision, which cost him two bonus points, “kind of crushing,” because, he said, “the car was super-smooth.” Brown and his team regrouped and in the lowered his elapsed time to 3.698. At the end of qualifying, he was sixth in the order, set for a first-round pairing against No. 11 Jordan Vandergriff. They have split a pair of meetings.

 

HEY, SON, GUESS WHAT YOU COULD HAVE – Some dad coerce their kids into doing something they want them to do by bribery. Some offer ice cream. Some offer a toy. Australian Top Fuel team owner Santo Rapisarda promised his son . . . more work.  

Tino Rapisarda, crew chief for No. 15 qualifier Wayne Newby, said, “One thing that Dad did guarantee was that if we were to win the U.S. Nationals, we have a guaranteed extension of two more races.

“An extra incentive to just go win the U.S. Nationals. Nothing major, you know. No pressure. No pressure at all. But just win the U.S. Nationals,” he said.

They have won the biggest race in their homeland – and championships, to boot.

“We have, multiple times. But definitely with 21 cars, that’s three or four times the field that we could have at any given time in Australia,” Newby said.

Newby will have the pleasure of squaring off against No. 2 starter Billy Torrence in Round 1 Monday.  

BVR RACERS GET RESPECT – When Steve Torrence defeated hometown favorite Shawn Reed in the Seattle semifinals about a month ago, he said, “Hat’s off to that whole Vandergriff team. When they show up, whoever’s driving, they’re bad to the bone. They really do their homework, and they show up ready to race. That’s what we need more of, more teams that even if they’re part-time, they show up and they’re [competitive].”

The two Bob Vandergriff Racing drivers will start mid-pack. Reed qualified 10th and Jordan Vandergriff 11th. Reed will race seventh-place starter Leah Pritchett. She won their only previous meeting. Vandergriff will get Antron Brown in the other lane in Round 1.

BEST COUNTDOWN START? – Top qualifier Brittany Force could find herself enjoying the best position entering the Countdown she has had in her career.

“We’re sitting [No.] 2, which is, I know, the best position we’ve been in. The year we won the championship in 2017, we were in sixth position, so made quite a big jump. Really, it’s just about figuring out your car and being ready from here on out,” she said.

Points and half can be a helpful concept for her, but she knows it can mean trouble, too. “It depends,” she said with an eye on Monday eliminations. “Exactly. But it’s the same game for everybody. I’m hoping we do well so we can pick up some more points and keep climbing up that ladder. We’re all playing the same game. We’re chasing Steve, really. He’s the one that’s way out ahead, way out ahead.”

She her obvious choice would be to be No. 1 at the start of the Countdown. “That’s the best position to be in to go into all this, but really [once this race ends] and the system resets, then is when it’s game-on. That’s when it’s really all season long we’ve been preparing for this spot now, going into this Countdown right now. This is what we’ve been doing all season long.”

She earned her sixth No. 1 starting position of the season and 16th of her career. And she became the first female to lead the Top Fuel field at the U.S. Nationals.

Force said she feels the nerves. For her it’s normal and not necessarily unwelcome.

“It’s been there every weekend, there the first race of the season, the last race of the season, Countdown. There’s always that pressure, there’s always those nerves. They never go away,” she said.

“I feel like every driver has to have that. When you climb in one of these things that anything can happen at any moment, you’ve got to be on your toes. You’ve got to be prepared. The nerves are good. They keep you aware that things can go wrong, that you’ve got to make sure you’re focused and ready for anything.”

Right now she needs to be ready for No. 16 qualifier T.J. Zizzo, her first-round opponent in Monday eliminations.

HADDOCK HIGH ON FERRÉ – Top Fuel rookie Cameron Ferré, who will miss the U.S. Nationals and will not compete in the Countdown, still received high marks from team owner Terry Haddock.

“Cameron’s doing a really good job,” Haddock said. “When Cameron came on at the end of last year, he didn’t have a whole lot of laps. We decided to keep going here. We don’t really have the funding to make all the runs, but we make as many as we can, and we try to make sure Cameron learns something every time. He’s doing real good. He listens well. He follows directions. He shuts it off when he’s told to. I can’t complain. I like him. He’s a good kid.”

Ferré has taken charge of the clutch on the car. Haddock said, “He works hard. He wants to race. His heart’s in it.

“He’s a very personable guy to be around,” the boss said, “and when you try to teach him something, he listens, and he follows directions. When I tell him to do something, I can see him doing it. It’s a good thing. It will help him in his career.”

For Haddock, it’s a chance to give Ferré the attention he didn’t receive when he started his career.

“I never had those opportunities, and that’s part of why I do it for Cameron, because he’s a good guy. I never got a break to drive something. I can’t really afford to be doing this, but we’re trying to help him and help us at the same time. I want to pay it forward a little bit,” he said.

For both of them, it would be super-helpful if Ferré had the time to become active in sponsorship-procurement matters, for he has a degree in marketing and Haoock recognizes that’s “more his strong suit than it is mine.” But Haddock understands that right now, taking on another task such as that, something that critical, is a bit unfair to ask of him right now.

“It is hard for him. He’s got a new baby and he’s got a wife and he’s got a new job. It takes so much time to do all this stuff and to make it all work, so it’s hard for him. I know he’s always looking for money and he’s trying to make it better. It’s just the way it goes. I wish there was more money out there to be had, because I think if there was some out there, he’d have it,” Haddock said. “He’s a marketable young guy and he’s well spoken. He’s smart. He pays attention. He’s the kind of guy you want to have around. We enjoy him being here. That’s why we run the car so much.

“Everybody thinks, ‘Oh, you’re so lucky – you get two qualifying checks. It’s $20,000. Well, $20,000 don’t pay the bills,” the struggling independent team owner said. “It helps us get closer to zero when we make minimal runs like we’ve been doing. And we want to give the kid something, because if he’s not out here, he ain’t going to find any money.”

ON THE SIDELINES – Unable to make their way into the 16-car field were Pat Dakin, Luigi Novelli, Cameron Ferré, Chris Karamesines, and Lex Joon.

TOP FUEL NOTEBOOK - FORCE RETAINS LEAD IN WILD 3.6 THROWDOWNS, NO COBWEBS FOR NEWBY, SALINAS STILL SUCCESSFUL BUT HIS PROGRAM IS EVOLVING
 

FORCE STORMS BACK TO REGAIN TOP PLACE – Brittany Force withstood a stiff challenge during Saturday’s two qualifying sessions at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals. But she regained her provisional No. 1 starting position in a dizzying wave of 3.6-second passes on the Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis 1,000-foot course.  

She showed the Capco Dragster duo of Billy and Steve Torrence that she could outdo them in her Advance Auto Parts entry, exploding with a track-record 3.645-second elapsed time to close class action on a cooler, overcast day.

Her first challenge Saturday in the first session of the day and second overall came from nemesis Steve Torrence. The season-long points leader matched her class-best E.T. of 3.670 seconds from Friday. But his best sped was 323.89 mph, but her 330.96 was faster. So she held him off.

Then in the third overall go-‘round, she had to line up once again against him. But the elder Torrence opened some eyes in the previous pairing, blasting to a 3.655-second run at a track-record 333.33 mph.

She responded with the quickest pass in the history of this fabled racetrack. She pulled off a 3.645-second pass  and jumped from her car, exclaiming, “Oh my gosh!  I’m so pumped right now!”

Force figures to be in the best position she ever has been in to start a Countdown, which will begin at the next race, at Reading, Pa. And she is maneuvered herself into this situation with an accomplished crew chief but a different one from the tuner who guided her to her 2017 series championship. Her current guru is Dave Grubnic, with considerable input from assistant Mac Savage.

“I’ve loved every crew chief I’ve ever worked with,” she said. “They all come in and teach me something. I learn something new from every single crew chief. And David Grubnic and Mac Savage have been incredible to work with. Got along with them right early on in the season, Phoenix testing. We went out and spent a few days out in Phoenix testing. I knew we’ve got a good group here. I’ve got some good crew chiefs and I think we’re going to be a good team, and we went out and won five races later in Houston. So I knew we had a good package. And also the fact Grubnic’s been in one of these just a few years ago, so to be able to connect with him, relate with him on that makes things easier for me as a driver.”

She adapted to their systems right away.

“Didn’t know him or that entire crew they brought over. I didn’t know any of them, so really it was kind of a shock starting the season,” Force said. “Just there was nothing familiar, a whole new sponsor teaming up with Advance Auto Parts, two new crew chiefs and a whole new team, so it was a lot. And [Funny Car-driving sister] Courtney was gone [retired]. So it was a big change, but I got to know them so well so quickly. They were family right away. And that’s what you need. Good group of guys, every single one of those guys. I love every single one of them. We all, we get along. I mean, we do team dinners, we go to the Indy 500 together, we make little trips and do fun things. But they’re an awesome group to work with, and they’re some of the hardest workers I’ve ever met.”

She – they all – had to work hard all day Saturday to keep that top position. And they’ll be doing it all over again in Sunday’s critical final two qualifying sessions.

TEAM FROM DOWN UNDER SEEKS TOP RESULTS – Wayne Newby and his Rapisarda Autosport International team hadn’t raced since June. They spent the equivalent nearly a full day in the air, traveling from Sydney in Australia through Los Angeles to Indianapolis. And the dragster they were reunited with at the Brownsburg, Ind., shop had sat idle for a year. So it was no small feat Friday when Newby, the two-time Top Fuel champion in his own country, made a full pass in the class’ first pairing Friday and grabbed the provisional No. 12 position.

His 3.803-second elapsed time at 322.11 mph put him in the tentative line-up ahead of such standouts as Mike Salinas, Clay Millican, and rookie sensation Austin Prock.

“It’s always good to get that first run under our belt,” Newby said, disappointed that didn’t have more to show for the team’s initial appearance in the U.S. this season. “We didn’t run the time we were hoping for. The car left the line slow and didn’t pull like it should have. But that’s life, and life goes on. Twelfth has us in the field after Round One, and that’s a good starting point.”

Tino Rapisarda, his co-crew chief with brother Santo Rapisarda Jr., had said the team hoped to be “gooderer.” He laughed and said, “We make up our own words.” They also made up their own path, coming here and tackling a four-day race that marks a wild difference from their familiar one-day meets at home.

“The nice thing about having multiple-day events,” Rapisarda said, “is it gives us time to stand back and look at our parts and look at how the car’s running and really take a more analytical approach to making the next run. So we have time to breathe, service everything, and make the most educated decision on the tune-up. At home, it is a nice, short show for the crowd. However, it’s more of a rush. And you can’t afford to make even the slightest mistake; otherwise, your day of gaining any potential points could be ruined. So you have to be more careful, very careful, about what you’re doing at the same time. With all this time to analyze, we should be able to perform at our very best. The flip side would be overthinking things. Having more time to think about something gives you more time to overthink. However, we’re going to take our best educated guess and put our strongest foot forward and see what we can do.”

Off the track, their living arrangements are much different than those of other competitors. Newby and crew share the Indianapolis home team owner Santo Rapisarda provided with other personnel from the organization and guests. “It’s a solid party of 15 to make it all happen,” Tino Rapisarda said.

He said Junior Rapisarda’s fiancée, Brooke, “does a lot of the logistics work and organizes tickets. So you’re constantly looking at pricing. You want to be the most economic. One ticket may not make a difference, but 15, it definitely all adds up. So Brooke’s been looking at that. And then to organize our food for that many people is [a task]. Besides keeping the race car happy is keeping the crew happy. You’ve got to keep everyone happy, which is very hard.” Last year with everyone is under one roof, they had a flu outbreak. “And then we spread it among ourselves like butter,” Tino Rapisarda said.

“It definitely makes it interesting, a tight-knit atmosphere. We do some remote-control car and helicopter racing, as well as football playing. We do try our best to keep ourselves entertained by more practical means rather than watching TV and watching a movie together, falling asleep on the couch. We try to have fun and make the most of it. We tire ourselves out, and then we’re quickly off to bed.  The noise stops in a very big hurry about 11 o’clock towards midnight,” he said.

Shower schedules require patience, as well – and all that is in play even before they get to the shop or track and start focusing on the car. That can be a tricky situation, too, for back home, in Australia’s 400 Thunder Series, Tino Rapisarda tunes Newby’s car and his brother tunes teammate Damien Harris’ dragster.

“They do things different, and they do have that rivalry,” Newby said. “Even though we’re going to be teammates, it’s just nature, you know? Everybody wants to win. So Junior has his team and his crew wanting to beat our crew, just like our group wants to beat his group. Here, I think it’s better, because both of them put their brains together.

I think it’s an advantage, because they’re both working together. And both cars back home are a little bit different. But, here, they’re two brains working together. It’s very good. Honestly, I’m feeling really confident with both of them. But what they did on the week when we tested, how the car reacted to what they wanted to do. I feel like we can run with them.”

His crew chief said, “We have a full arsenal of engine equipment over here. We ship it home if anything, but not back. Just a supply, we have three cars over there. We’ll be going in with five spare engines , four superchargers, around eight sets of cylinder heads, so we’ll be fully equipped for any situation. We will throw parts at it every run. Should be good.”

Tino Rapisarda said, “Everyone knows that the track prep has been a little bit different over the course of the year, so half the fuel cars go and run high .60’s, so I guess we’ll be using a lot of other cars as a yardstick, or as we say, a gauge block. We’ll be able to set the car up based on what we think we can afford to put the car in, what kind of window on the tune-up. I mean we can probably shoot for a mid to high [3].70 initially and we’ll see if it sticks and then move forward from there.

“We’re going to have to keep a little bit in the bank, just to make sure we don’t smoke the tires and use up our first nighttime session opportunity, but also get a good baseline on the track that’s had more traffic than it did in testing,” Rapisarda said. “So [we’re] trying to be a little bit reserved, but in the same run, trying to be aggressive to a degree.”

So Newby’s 3.803-second E.T. was a slight tick disappointing, yet it was strong run at the same time.

Newby was confident. He said, “They prep the track so well and we’re confident in our combination that we actually try and relate things from home to the U.S. and have been successful at doing that over the past year. So it’s just a matter of running it as hard as you can and obviously treating the parts right and keeping everything intact. We are not afraid to perform.”

So-called “Track Whisperer” Lanny Miglizzi, at John Force Racing, has helped advise the RAI team. “I’ll be honest with you, we’re actually pretty good friends with Lanny. He’s quite a friend and he’ll be honest giving his opinion. He told us don’t be afraid to ask him and he said he’ll advise us as best as he can,” Tino Rapisarda said. “So that’s one thing that he’s very nice and welcoming. Obviously being foreigners, it’s very nice to be welcomed like that. He doesn’t have to extend that, but he’s never afraid to enlighten us on anything that he might see that we may not. It’s definitely appreciated to be welcomed like that.”

SALINAS LEARNING, SUCCEEDING – Scrappers Racing owner-driver Mike Salinas set the track speed record in the second overall session, trumping Tony Schumacher’s three-year-old mark of 330.31 mph. Salinas ran a 333-flat, only to see it disappear in the late Saturday session. Billy Torrence laid down his 3.655-second run at a whopping 333.33 mph.

The happy news for Salinas early Saturday is that he gained nine places in the provisional order, moving from 15th to sixth. Then he used his evening pass to improve to fourth with a 3.681  at a faster speed, 331.20 mph. The field will be finalized after two more qualifying sessions Sunday.

Coming into this weekend, Salinas was a dozen points out of the top five.

“We’re 29 points away from being second. Our goal is to try to leave out of here in second place. And we’re here to have fun, do the best we possibly can – and I think we’re going to have a good weekend,” he said before qualifying even started Friday.

Salinas said he’s not feeling any pressure to repeat his accomplishments from his last visit here. He was the No. 1 qualifier in all five sessions in 2018.

“Nah, just good feelings,” is how he looks at his task this week through the filter of last year’s performance. “Family’s racing with us. How much better can life get? Good friends, good family, good people around us . . . We’re going to have a great time.”

He always is quick to credit Alan Johnson for building his program, but he said others deserve some glory, as well.

“It’s not only Alan. Alan’s one piece of the puzzle, [as are] all the guys that assemble everything. It’s a group effort. That’s what I really like,” Salinas said. “[Crew Chief]

Brian Husen doesn’t get enough credit. I think he’s right underneath Alan [in status], because he’s been with him for so long. All the guys, they are equal to me. Alan is the top guy, but don’t discount that because Alan couldn’t do his job without the other guys.

We’ve got a team effort here, and you’re seeing the results of it.”

He said the difference between his program last September and this one is that “now we actually are going racing. Last year, we were on survival to see if we could make it. There’s a difference between coming racing and trying to survive out here. Well, we’re going racing now. It’s a difference. It’s a whole different method. Until I was with Alan and Brian and all the guys, I understand the difference now. And now we are going racing and we are a legitimate threat, and we are a legitimate team that can run good.

All the successful teams out here are because of the people. That’s it: it’s just the people. This group has been together. It works, so don’t mess it up. Leave it alone.

“And they’re teaching me some really good things,” he said. “I literally thought I knew about racing and at this level, I know nothing and I am learning. Alan and the guys, they’re teaching me some really good things.”

That just makes Salinas more resolved to put all that fresh, useful information to good use.

“It costs just as much to lose as it does to win,” Salinas said. “I’ll go race to win, and that’s it. Nothing else.”

DAKIN EDGED OUT – Pat Dakin isn’t much into the notion of calling himself a victim. But he actually was Saturday evening as the third overall session began with Austin Prock posting a 3.742-second elapsed time at 328.06 mph. That put the Montana Brand/Rocky Mountain Twist Dragster into the field and set the bump spot at 3.78 seconds. That made the Top Fuel line-up the quickest ever. Dakin had a chance in the next pairing to power his way back in, but he clocked a 3.811-second E.T. at 308-flat to find himself on the outside looking in with two final qualifying opportunities Sunday. Prock leaped from last place to 11th overnight. Also missing the cut so far are Luigi Novelli, Cameron Ferré, and Lex Joon.

 

TORRENCE TRIES TO MAKE HISTORY, FEND OFF FORCE – Steve Torrence declared before the event even began that “if it’s a little hot this week, that’ll be just fine with me.” He said crew chief Richard Hogan “does a really good job of navigating tracks that are a little ‘iffy’ because of the heat or whatever, and I’m just glad that he’s my guy.”

For Friday qualifying, it was a little hot, and it was plenty fine with Torrence. He started his weekend with a riveting side-by-side pairing with Brittany Force. She had the better elapsed time (3.670 seconds to his 3.688) and seized the provisional No. 1 starting position. He was No. 2 heading into Saturday’s two scheduled qualifying sessions.  

They remained Nos. 1-2 early Saturday, although Torrence matched her 3.670-second elapsed time. Force retained her No. 1 status because her top speed was better: her 330.96 mph to his 323.89.

“I’ve got to do my job, when you’ve got Brittany and [her crew chief Dave] Grubnic over there, going .67 every time they go down [the racetrack],” he said. “We’re trying to out on a show for these fans here in Indy. All these fans are unbelievable. A little shower this morning kept it cool. But we’ll try to save the two champs for the last pair every round.”

Saturday qualifying ended in a wild flurry of low 3.6-second elapsed times. In the end, Steve Torrence was one-thousandth of a second slower than his father. Billy Torrence clocked a 3.655-second time, and Steve’s best so far is 3.656. But Brittany Force reclaimed her No. 1 status with a stunning pass of 3.645 seconds on the 1,000-foot course.

Steve Torrence has a chance to add to his already-gaudy numbers and mark his name again in the sport’s history book. He is poised to complete 18 races with the largest point lead in NHRA history. Torrence entered this weekend with a 635-point advantage over closest challenger Brittany Force. That’s roughly the equivalent of 32 rounds of racing. The largest margin a Top Fuel leader has had at the close of the so-called regular season during the Countdown Era was 567 (Tony Schumacher over Don Schumacher Racing colleague Antron Brown in 2008). Torrence also could break the record for the biggest margin through 18 events ever, in any class. It was John Force’s 618-point lead in the Funny Car class over teammate Tony Pedregon after the first 18 races of the 1996 season, before the NHRA established the Countdown.

Torrence won this race in 2017, the same weekend in which he earned an extra $100,000 for winning what turned out to be the final edition of the Traxxas Nitro Shootout. His race-day record here is 15-8.

JUST HAVIN’ FUN – While fulltime racers are scrapping to make the Countdown field, part-timer Billy Torrence is on the verge of barging his way in – and he wasn’t necessarily trying to do that.

The elder of the two Capco Dragster drivers is making only his 10th appearance of the season, and in the first nine had victories at Phoenix and Sonoma and a runner-up finish to his trophy-hogging son Steve at Topeka. He came into Indianapolis just 41 points out of the top 10, threatening Top Fuel anchor Terry McMillen.

But at least on the surface, Billy Torrence isn’t wringing his hands about his chances.

“We’re having fun just being out here. We didn’t intend to try to make the Countdown, anyway. It’s just a bonus. We’re having a good time, and the car’s running well. It’s all fun,” he said.

It certainly was fun Saturday afternoon when he set the Lucas Oil Raceway speed record at 333.33 mph with his 3.655-second run that elevated him to the tentative No. 2 starting spot. Billy Torrence sits one-thousandth of a second ahead of his son. They all have two more qualifying runs scheduled for tomorrow.

It’s a pleasant diversion from his job at Capco Contractors back in the Kilgore, Texas, area. Billy Torrence founded the oil and gas pipeline construction and maintenance business.

He also could join his son on the list of U.S. Nationals winners. “It would surprise nobody if he won,” Clay Millican said.

His competitors understand his unique and fortunate circumstance.

“Look at Billy Torrence,” Mike Salinas said. “He’s two rounds away from being in the Countdown and missed eight races. Now, that’s the person that everybody should be watching because Billy Torrence – my prediction – will get in the Countdown, he will be No. 9 or 10 in this field, and he will run for the championship with his kid. I think it’s going to be pretty awesome. What it is is a testament to what they do and how they do it, and it’s putting everybody on notice that we’ve got to have our crap together. I just want to be like Billy: come in part time, race, have a great time, beat everybody, and go home and work and have fun.

“It’s a really big deal, because it’s changing the structure of how everybody looks at this stuff,” the Scrapppers Racing boss said. “So if you have your stuff together and your car runs like their cars do . . . You and I both know it’s amazing how great their cars run. They’ve worked a lot of years to get it that way, and it’s working perfect right now. So as long as it works for them, that’s perfect.”

Millican said, “Billy’s in a position that very few people are. He can do it however he wants to do it. And obviously he’s part of the best-running [operation] in Top Fuel. I don’t really fault him for that. He has a huge business.”  

He said he doesn’t envy Billy Torrence’s position, exactly. Millican wants to race. He said, “I would still do all the races. I’d rather be Stevie: come in and out. Daddy’s got to run the business. Stevie works his tail off in the business, I know that. But I mean Billy, he’s an amazing guy. That’s a guy, him and Kay, they made their money, and I appreciate that. He was an oilfield worker and started this business. Miss Kay cleaned houses. It’s an impressive story. It is definitely the American dream story.”

If he makes the playoffs and throws a scare into reigning-champion Steve Torrence, that would be quite a story, too.

MAKING A LIVING, WORKING FOR ANOTHER TITLE – Despite all the talk about the financial state of the sport and its prospects for a sustainable future, Clay Millican, driver of the Parts Plus Dragster for Straightline Strategy Group, said he’s “living proof” that a person can earn a living drag racing.

“I’ve never had the budget to have all the cool whiz-bang stuff, but this is my 21st year that I have not drove a forklift. Twenty-one years I didn’t have to do it. I’ve been able to keep the bills paid while doing what I love doing,” Millican said. “So I’m living proof it can be done.”

He also believes that winning an NHRA championship to go with the six consecutive ones he earned in the IHRA.

Millican entered this race fourth in the standings, just four behind No. 3 Doug Kalitta and six behind No. 2 Brittany Force. He said he’ll start counting points and paying attention – “start paying more attention” – to the points-and-a-half system that will be in play at the season finale at Pomona, Calif.

“I just know going rounds is all that you can do,” he said.

TOP FUEL NOTEBOOK

FRIDAY

FORCE TAKES EARLY LEAD IN QUALIFYING, POINTS SYSTEM WILL AFFECT SOME MORE THAN OTHERS, DAKIN HAS FIRE SCARE
 

FORCE AT TOP OF ORDER  – Just like she did at Brainerd, Minn., two weekends ago in the most recent race, Brittany Force rocketed to the head of the Top Fuel leaderboard Friday night at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis .

Reeling off a 3.670-second elapsed time at 327.27 mph on the 1,000-foot course, Force continued putting her stamp on the qualifying process, this time on the Mello Yello Drag Racing tour’s biggest stage, the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals.

For the Advance Auto Parts driver for John Force Racing, this has been a season for high performance at high-profile events. At the Gatornationals this March at Gainesville, Fla., Force became the first woman since Shirley Muldowney in 1979 to qualify No. 1 at the event. Later at the SpringNationals at Houston, Force and her father earned the No. 1 starting spots in their respective nitro categories. That made them the first professional parent-child combo in NHRA history to be top qualifiers at the same event.

This event has a special meaning, for it’s one she said she associates with treasured family memories.

“I’ve been coming to the Indy race with my sisters and parents since I was a baby. I have pictures in my dad’s winners circle going back 30 years. This track has so much history for my family. Next to winning a championship, every driver and teams’ goal is to win Indy,” Force said. “My dad has won four times and Ashley won two years in a row. This year I’d like to add my name in the book next to theirs with David Grubnic, Mac Savage and all the Advance Auto Parts boys. We’ve had our ups and downs all season long, but we all feel confident going into Indy and this Countdown. It’s the big one. It’s on my bucket list.”

She said her family has photos of he and her sisters, who all were small enough in those days to “have Binkies in our mouths.”

Her 3.670 E.T. fell just seven-thousandths of a second short of matching Clay Millican’s track record of 3.663 seconds from 2017.

Force is seeking her sixth No. 1 position of the season, and she indicated she wouldn’t be at all surprised if this E.T. from the weekend’s only nighttime qualifying session held up.

“That was a pretty awesome run,” she said afterward, adding that she “won’t have to worry much” about safely making the 16-car field for Monday’s eliminations.

“It definitely felt fast. That track out there, it’s a good racetrack. I was worried – I saw some cars ahead of me that weren’t getting down that lane,” Force said. “We’re looking for consistency, because that’s where we’ve been struggling in qualifying.”   

Millican and Force’s JFR colleague Austin Prock are the lone unqualified drivers who made runs Friday night. Lex Joon didn’t make an attempt Friday.

She’s ranked second in the standings but has rivals Doug Kalitta, Millican, Antron Brown, Mike Salinas, and Leah Pritchett poised to bump her down the line.

ONE BUT MAYBE NOT DONE – No active Top Fuel driver has more than one victory at this event. And only four current drivers have won: Terry McMillen (2018), Steve Torrence (2017), Richie Crampton (2014), and Antron Brown (2011).

WHO BENEFITS FROM POINTS FORMAT? – Top Fuel leader and reigning champion Steve Torrence is about the only top-10 driver who won’t be affected by the points-and-a-half system in place for this last race of the so-called “regular season.” He has a monstrous 635-point advantage over closest challenger Brittany Force. No matter what happens tis weekend, he won’t topple from his No. 1 Countdown to the Championship seeding. He is guaranteed to head to Reading, Pa.’s playoff debut at Maple Grove Raceway with the lead. But the recalculated points system that will occur at the end of this race will wipe out the safe margin he has built. He will have a 20-point cushion over the No. 2 seed, and Nos. 2-10 will be separated by 10-point increments.

Force’s task as the second-ranked driver is to fend off No. 3 Doug Kalitta, who trails by just two points, and Clay Millican, who lurks in fourth place with only six fewer points. Antron Brown, at No. 5, is a slim 11 points behind Millican. So a mere 17 points separate the second- and fifth-ranked racers.

Mid-packers Mike Salinas (No. 6) and Leah Pritchett (No. 7), both winners this year, are the most recent finalists. (She defeated him at Brainerd two weekends ago.) They, too, have a chance to benefit from the points-and-a-half opportunity this weekend.

Those are seeding scenarios. At the bottom of the Countdown order, the drama lies in who will make or miss the six-race playoffs.

No. 8 Austin Prock and No. 9 Richie Crampton possibly could swap places, for they’re only 41 points apart as the four-day marathon race kicks off. But neither is locked into the Countdown field yet. And once again, Terry McMillen anchors the Top Fuel field as this Labor Day classic starts on his 65th birthday. McMillen, who has qualified for the Countdown the past two years, has broken his cycle of 11th-hour heartbreak, yet he finds himself in danger of experiencing it again.

McMillen, the popular winner of this race a year ago, faces a serious challenge from No. 11 Scott Palmer, who, like McMillen, has enjoyed an improved career trajectory. Palmer needs seven points to tie McMillen. No. 12-ranked driver Billy Torrence, leader Steve Torrence’s father, is a surprise threat – and at the same time he isn’t. In just nine appearances in 17 opportunities before this race, Billy Torrence has won twice, at Phoenix and at Sonoma, Calif. He’s only 41 points behind McMillen. And if he should bump McMillen from the playoff field, he would provide a genuine, it-actually-happened example that a racer doesn’t need to enter all regular-season events to qualify for the Countdown.

McMillen knows he can’t rest on last September’s laurels. “Having the opportunity to win this race and go back as the defending champion, it’s still unbelievable,” he said. “I hope the testing we did last week will allow us to go back and have a good chance. We just have to match everybody out there. If Billy starts going rounds, we have to match that. If Scott goes rounds, we have to match that. They both have great cars, so it’s about going up there and being as consistent as we can. It’s going to be a dogfight, and that’s how it should be at Indy.”

The points-and-a-half system could have a significant effect on the Top Fuel class this weekend.

Richie Crampton, the 2014 winner here, is one who looks at it as a gateway to improvement. He said he’s “really just focusing on trying to win the U.S. Nationals. If we do that, the Countdown points will take care of themselves. You get an extra qualifying session, and there are more points on the line. I see that as an opportunity to separate ourselves and show what this team is capable of.”

The same goes for his Kalitta Motorsports mate, Doug Kalitta, who said, “The Countdown is a great equalizer. We are right in the thick of things, and a great weekend at the U.S. Nationals could give us a ton of momentum going into the playoffs.”

Clay Millican said, “I don’t really have an opinion one way or another. I understand why NHRA did the points and a half, because it does mix it up and makes it very interesting. And it’s got even someone like me paying attention to my spot but who’s going to end up in the top 10 and who’s not. It adds to what’s happening at Indy.”

Maybe the more relevant question is how much of a role the points-and-a-half system will play in determining the champion at the end of the year. The extra-points program will be in effect at the NHRA Finals in November at Pomona, Calif.

AT LEAST ONE SCHU MISSING – The three most successful Top Fuel drivers at Indianapolis are not racing. Tony Schumacher, the 10-time champion, and Larry Dixon combined for 13 of the new millennium’s first 16 victories at Indianapolis. Dixon, who had three in that stretch, has four altogether. Don Garlits, long retired from Top Fuel racing, was the king of the class here until 2009, when Schumacher matched his eight. The U.S. Army Dragster driver went on to win again in 2012 and 2016. Schumacher owns the track speed record, from 2016, at 330.31 mph.

FIRE LEAVES MINIMAL DAMAGE – First, it was a tornado this June, and Pat Dakin managed to avoid its destruction. A few weeks ago, his shop had an electrical fire, which resulted in minimal smoke damage.

“Yeah, we had a little fire there,” the Ohio veteran racer said, understating the situation. “It was electrical. It was an exhaust fan that shorted out.”

Nodding to his Commercial Metal Fabrications Dragster, Dakin said, “It didn’t get to this thing, because we have kind of like a firewall between where the fire was and where we keep all this stuff. All we got was smoke damage. They’ve got to take all the ceiling down, all the insulation out of the roof, and come back and put all new in. Just trying to get the smoke smell out of it was the biggest thing. I’ve got a real good contractor there, and he’s doing a great job. And the insurance company is working with me very well. So no problems. We’ll get it.”

He said he was fortunate that the fire broke out at about one o’clock in the afternoon, “and there were a lot of people there. If it had been at night or the weekend, I don’t think we would have saved it. There were people there, and they got everything. They got this thing out and a couple of my other [restored] cars in there, they got them out.”

Among the spared vehicles was a ’47 Ford that was his first race car that he had completely redone. “We got all that stuff out. The fire department looked at us kind of strange, because we have drums of nitro in there and they went, ‘What’s this?’”

All in all, Dakin said, “It’s my first fire. It’s no fun,” he said.

“We dodged the tornado. The tornado didn’t get us, and I didn’t lose a shingle on the race shop. It did over where the business is, but the tornado got like 200 foot from the race shop and it wiped houses out. Two hundred foot away from where the business is and it wiped businesses out, but I got very, very fortunate, very lucky.”

Dakin, who was runner-up to Steve Torrence at the Norwalk, Ohio, race, said his plan for this weekend starts with qualifying.

“Get it qualified first,” he said was Task No. 1. “There’s 21 cars here and there’s 15 or 16 pretty good cars here, so it’s going to take a high .70 to get in, or at least an .80 flat to get in. We’ll run it until we’re in.”

Dakin is known for his steady approach to racing, treating his parts carefully.

“We never go kamikaze. This thing doesn’t blow up much, so we’re careful. And it runs better when it doesn’t blow up,” he said. “We’re good. We’ve got pretty good inventory right now, so we’re fine. We come with four motors and if I lose four motors, I’m going home.”

The 73-year-old privateer from the Dayton, Ohio, area said he enjoys the camaraderie of the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series. He said he tries to be friendly.

“Everybody out here’s friendly. It’s just a big family of people. Everybody gets along, because everybody’s in the same boat and in the same position. It doesn’t pay you to make enemies out here at the venue that you’re racing at. Never works.”

However, he said he has that element of surprise for his competitors: They think we’re not too serious, but we’re very serious when this thing starts. When it’s not, we’re not that serious. If it wasn’t fun, I wouldn’t do it, because this is all out of my pocket, so I have zero sponsors. I’m too old to even look for a sponsor or want one. If someone told me how to race this thing or what to do with it, I’d say, ‘Nah, I don’t think I need you.’”

CRAMPTON AVOIDING TORRENCES – Since Richie Crampton’s back-to-back Gatornationals victory in March, the Kalitta Motorsports driver has reached the semifinals at Epping, N.H., and the quarterfinals at the national events at Chicago, Topeka, Denver, and Sonoma. That’s not an especially impressive feat, but what’s significant about it is that at all five of those events, Crampton has lost to somebody named Torrence. Points leader Steve Torrence defeated Crampton four times, and Torrence’s father Billy eliminated him at Topeka.

“It does seem like we run into those Capco guys a lot in the second round,” Crampton said. “I think it is just one of those things that if we can qualify a little higher, we can miss them. I will say that racing them makes everybody better. You know you have to be at the top of your game, because they don’t make many mistakes. We had a couple shots at them and just didn’t capitalize. No matter who is in the other lane, the name of the game is getting to that finish-line stripe first. That will be our goal on Monday at the U.S. Nationals, for sure.”

 

HANGING ON – Struggling to hold onto his 10th and final Countdown qualifying position, Terry McMillen knows he has a fight on his hands. But he also has confidence in himself and his Rob Wendland-led crew.

“We’re just going to keep throwing things at it, and we’ll get this thing to turn around,” he said. “I truly believe we’ll get a win before the end of the year, and it would certainly be great if it was Indy. It’s such a prestigious race, and when you look at the people who have won this race, it’s just still mind-boggling that we’ve won it. It’s got a good ring to it, and we’re going to keep working hard.”

 

 

 

 

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