2019 NHRA VEGAS FOUR-WIDE NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
SALINAS WAKES UP TOP FUEL CLASS WITH HIS FIRST-EVER RACING VICTORY - Mike Salinas warned everyone, “We’re here to win, and we’re not messing around.”
He said it with such a serious tone in his voice that he suddenly became – all in one – a modern-day Don Garlits with his grit, a Don Prudhomme with that felony-grade chip on his shoulder, a Kenny Bernstein with his business sense, and a John Force with fierce family loyalty. But he wasn’t trying to emulate them.
“I have four people watching me [his daughters]. That matters to me more than anything in the world. I’ve been racing a lot of years and I’ve never won anything,” he said after securing the No. 1 starting spot at this weekend’s Denso Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals. “I set the bar for my family, and if I don’t win, how can they win?”
After Sunday’s career-first victory, when he outran Brittany Force, Doug Kalitta, and Clay Millican at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, he never has to ask that question again. But he probably will. He’s that relentless.
Tuner Alan Johnson has an eye for talent – with four Top Alcohol Dragster titles with brother Blaine and a combined 12 Top Fuel championships with Gary Scelzi, Tony Schumacher, Larry Dixon, Del Worsham, Shawn Langdon, and Brittany Force. And he saw that same drive in Salinas.
“Anytime somebody has the desire to race Top Fuel and has the financial ability to fund it on his own, you know that guy’s got some passion. We’re trying to reward him, our team, with some wins and a really good run at the championship. And this race here is a pretty good beginning to that.”
Salinas and Johnson might not have a warm-and-fuzzy friendship – if they do, it’s in a boxer-trainer kind of way. But it’s working, as the Scrappers Dragster owner-driver would verify.
“I’ve done everything in my power. I’ve given Alan everything he needed, didn’t question anything. We don’t talk until he needs to ask me something. That’s the way our relationship works: ‘Do your job. I do my job. Let’s go have some fun. Let’s go win,’” Salinas said.
He was runner-up at Bristol, Tenn., last June in his first final-round appearance. But the San Jose, Calif., businessman, who’ll turn 58 at the end of this month, had his NHRA Coming-Out Party at the U.S. Nationals last September, leading all five qualifying sessions. But his chance to seal the deal wilted when he suffered a heat stroke in the cockpit. And after he hit what he regarded as an early slump this season – a semifinal finish at Pomona, then a quarterfinal effort at Phoenix, and a first-round loss at Gainesville – he was determined to rebound here.
“Since we fell on our face in Arizona and Gainesville, we didn’t want that to happen again. So they actually stripped that car four times and we found our problem,” he said earlier in the weekend. “Now we’re just happy that we found our problem, and now we can go race.”
He did. In a blend of baseball and racing parlance, he “raced for the cycle,” finally getting the home run he knew he was capable of hitting. And his winning 3.801-second elapsed time at a best-of-the-meet 330.39 mph not only topped Force’s 3.810, 321.42. It also beat a 4.333 193.74 by points leader Doug Kalitta and a 4.350 264.23 from Clay Millican, who was making his second straight final round.
He jumped to second place in the standings as the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series action moves to Houston Raceway Park this coming weekend for the Mopar Express Lane NHRA SpringNationals Presented By Pennzoil.
Winning his first Wally trophy in his second final round just makes Salinas raise his own bar. “I’ve been waiting for this moment all my life,” he said. “I have something in my head. And I am a goal-achiever. I don’t do things like other people. I just achieve goals.”
Adam Sorokin, a second-generation drag racer who recently won his second Bakersfield March Meet Nostalgia Top Fuel title, is Salinas’ coach when it comes to the psychology of competing.
“What he did teach me this weekend was don’t think too far ahead, live in the moment, don’t think behind you, don’t think in front of you, do your job, and that will get you to the end,” Salinas said.
But this end appears to be just the beginning. Susan Wade
J.R. TODD CAPTURES FUNNY CAR TITLE AT VEGAS FOUR-WIDE NATIONALS - Big wins are nothing new for J.R. Todd.
After all, he’s the reigning NHRA Mello Yello Series nitro Funny Car world champion.
Todd added another Wally to his collection by capturing the title at the 20th annual DENSO Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals in Las Vegas Sunday.
In the finals, Todd clocked a 3.970-second lap at 319.07 mph to defeat Tommy Johnson Jr. (3.975), Jack Beckman (4.370) and Tim Wilkerson (4.401).
This was Todd’s third consecutive win at The Strip in Las Vegas.
“It’s all Kalitta Motorsports,” said Todd about his victory binge in Vegas. “It seems like ever since I’ve come onboard with this team that we’ve always run well here. The whole team, all four cars, had a really good handle on this place, especially (crew chiefs) Todd Smith and Jon O (Oberhofer). It seems like the more they come here the better grip they get on of this place.”
This was Todd’s 18th career Wally. Todd also made it to the finals in Phoenix earlier this season before losing to Matt Hagan. Todd is fourth in the season points standings – 83 points behind leader Robert Hight.
“We struggled this year with cold tracks and shaking the tires,” said Todd, who pilots Kalitta’s DHL Funny Car. “I knew it was not going to be cold every where we went and sure enough it was hot and nasty here (Sunday) and that’s kind of an equalizer for us. That 97 in the final there was pretty stout. Wilkerson ran well all weekend and I really expected him to step it up and throw down in the final, but you can never count out Todd Smith and Jon O and we had our act together this weekend.
There’s nothing that you do to really prepare yourself for the Four-Wide. You just make yourself aware of where you are on the track, what lane you’re in, who you’re racing against and do what you do and hit the gas when the yellow light comes on. It (the Four-Wide) is different, but the fans seem to like it and it packs the house here in Vegas, so if that's what we have to do to put some butts in the seats, I’m all for it because we need to take this sport to the next level.”
Todd has won nine national events in Funny Car in his last 38 races.
“I still think I have a lot of work to do inside the car, especially when it comes to pedaling it and things like that,” Todd said. “It went out there and blew the tires off first round and I’m hard on myself about keeping that thing in the groove. Any time it smokes the tires, I’m the first one to blame myself because I didn’t do a good enough job keeping it straight down the track. This was the fifth-year anniversary of getting the call from (Connie Kalitta). I was at home in Indy eating chicken wings and drinking beer and watching March Madness with my parents. He called me up and asked if I could get on a plane and come out here and drive his car Saturday. That’s where it all started, and I can’t thank him enough.”
During the weekend, Todd also warmed up a Top Alcohol Funny Car – something he thoroughly enjoyed.
“People don’t understand how awesome alcohol Funny Cars are,” Todd said. “I feel like that is probably one of the most underrated classes in our sport. I’ve never driven one and I have been told they are the hardest cars to drive and I believe it. Just warming that thing up it is pretty intimidating. I’m really good buddies with Jonnie Lindberg. He and myself and Richie (Crampton) hang out quite a bit back home in Indy and I was shooting my mouth off the other night that I wanted to warm up a car and Jonnie said come on over and we will put you in it. He let me warm it up Friday morning and it was way cool.”
At the close of his winner’s press conference, Todd did take a moment to address the plight of Chad Langdon, his teammate, Shawn Langdon’s father.
“Chad just had a liver transplant and it was kind of touch and go there for a while, but it is cool he got the transplant done and I hear that’s he’s going to be released from the hospital soon,” Todd said. “It is going to be a little bit of recovery for him and it’s kind of a miracle what happened there with him. I know Shawn has been going through some tough times the last six months or so and I’m glad it all worked out and I can’t wait to have him back out here at the track.” Tracy Renck
BUTNER STAYS HOT AND WINS PRO STOCK AT VEGAS FOUR-WIDE NATS - Pro Stock standout Bo Butner knows winning, especially this season.
Butner won the third race in four attempts this season, the latest came Sunday when he snared the Wally at the 20th annual DENSO Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals in Las Vegas.
Butner won the final round with a 6.677-second time at 206.67 mph and clinched the title with a (.030) light, a triple hole hot.
In the finals, Matt Hartford was second (6.667-second run and a .052 light) and Jason Line (6.674 seconds, .054 light) and Greg Anderson (6.655 seconds, .076 light). Line and Anderson are Butner's teammates.
“There’s no reason other than I learned back in the early 90s when I started chasing the world in the all the classes, you can’t be a lazy winner,” said Butner, who nearly retired from the Pro Stock class in the offseason. “We came back, and the win light is off now, and it is time for the next race, and we have to work hard. But, I’m with the best team. I’m in the final with Greg and Jason and we are like three brothers. It’s great to get that with Ken (Black, the team owner). We would have loved to have a fourth KB car, which we could have, but it worked out to be a good day and I’m just very blessed.
Bret Kepner texted me and he said the (triple holeshot) was the most awesome thing I’ve ever done. We had a fast car and I’m sure my car was as fast or faster than the other three and I just might have rolled in a little deeper. It’s cool and I’m happy our win light came on.”
Butner, the 2017 Pro Stock world champion, also qualified No. 1 with a 6.648-second lap at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
This was Butner’s 10th career Pro Stock win and his third this season as he also was victorious at Pomona, Calif., and Gainesville, Fla. He departed Vegas atop the points standings with 425 points. Alex Laughlin is in second place with 285 points.
“The class is tight, and it is tough, but we made a very good qualifying run in Q2 and we always had the car. It is just so close, and it was supposed to be (Sunday), like it was in Gainesville,” Butner said. “We’re ready to move on and I hate that we have a few weeks off because we are kind of on a roll. We’re coming back with a ’19 Camaro, so it is going to have a different body and hopefully it acts as nice to us as this one was.”
The NHRA Pro Stock class is only racing an 18-event national schedule this season and the next event for the class is May 17-19 in Richmond, Va.
“All I care about is win lights,” Butner said. “I knew in high gear that I was a little bit ahead of Greg, but he was coming on me and I knew I got there before Greg, but you can’t see the other side. So, then you’re staring at that flashing light and it came on and I got happy.
I think Greg takes it really hard (losing), it does not matter who it is. Jason is happy. Greg’s car ran very, very good there and they have been really struggling to make that car go A to B because has a fast car. We are on a very, very, huge lucky streak. It was a great day for KB Racing, Ken and Judy (Black). They are amazing people.”
Butner said in the break in the action for Pro Stock, he will return to his roots and compete in the Stock ranks.
“I have a few calls (people) are asking to drive some Super Stock cars and some Stockers,” Butner said. “I think I might take next weekend off and hang with some our friends in Texas and just enjoy the time and sell some shirts. I’m going back to the Factory Shootout car, I’m very disappointed that we showed up in Gainesville and did not qualify. There’s a lot of work there and we will be the Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday after Houston and whatever we have to do competitive in that and we will show in Charlotte in that.”
The NHRA Top Fuel and nitro Funny Cars will compete in Houston April 12-14, The Charlotte, N.C., Four-Wide Nationals are April 26-28. Tracy Renck
ARANA JR. RULES IN PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE RIVALRIES - Officially the race was the Denso Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals.
But when Hector Arana Jr. won his first Wally trophy of the year and second in his past two visits to The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, his final round Sunday was a three-wide affair.
A mechanical problem kept Andrew Hines even from staging his Harley-Davidson, and his Street Rod teammate Eddie Krawiec red-lighted away his chance by three-thousandths of a second. Hines nevertheless took over the points lead from Matt Smith, who was runner-up with an elapsed time just four-thousandths of a second slower than Arana’s.
Arana triumphed with 6.907-second pass at 195.79 mph, and Smith trailed at 6.903, 197.02.
His rivalry with the Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson team has matured from the days when they traded silly barbs in the not-that-long-ago span of “the Hectors and Harleys.” Today, Matt Smith has made it a three-way challenge.
“You know, other people like to say, ‘Oh, it’s not fair that Harley’s have their own deal.’ But honestly, we don’t think about that. My father and myself, they push us to be better. They push us to work harder, because we want to be the best and they’re one of the best out there. So it’s those teams that push us to do better,” Arana said. “We’re always looking to set the bar, so whoever’s ahead of us, they’re pushing us. The rivalry’s good. We just want to see who is the best on the track.”
He certainly was Sunday, especially in a showdown that pitted him against three racers who have a combined 12 series crowns – 12 more than he has right now.
“I tell you what, that Lucas Oil motorcycle, she’s bad to the bone,” he said. “That’s just a testament to my team and the consistency. As you can see, we weren’t the fastest, but we were consistent all weekend. We were right there, consistent, in the money,” Arana said.
“I just worked on my lights and they got better and better, and I stepped it up when I needed to step it up in the finals because the finals was stacked,” he said. “I know Andrew didn’t get to make a pass, but still even with Andrew not in the game, we still had Matt Smith and Ed Krawiec. So it was Number one, two, and three in the finish last year, and it was the three of us again. It was also one, two, and three qualifier. It was a stacked round, and I love going up against those guys. It really makes me put out my best. I always do that, but it’s just something about racing those guys you just dig deep and really go for it.”
He said his consistency comes from “more laps, but it’s more laps because we’re getting more and more notes. We’re looking at all the little details with the bike and the tune-up to make it consistent. Really, when the bike’s consistent, it makes it easier for me to be consistent and be consistent at the light,” Arana said. “So that was what we’ve been working at and just taking good notes, looking at all the little details. As we’re going, we’re looking at more and more things and that’s what’s helping us.”
This victory, Arana’s 16th overall, is a milestone for him personally. It’s his first as a father. He and wife Nicole are the parents of a little girl, Sofia.
Now, Arana said, “You’re bringing home the trophy to family. I had a family with Nicole and now my family’s gotten bigger with Sophia. It’s great for her to be able to say, even though she’s not saying anything yet, but her daddy’s a winner.”
So is his own dad, Hector Arana Sr., who runs the shop out of his Milltown, Ind., shop.
“My dad takes care of the bikes, along with the crew, Dan Gonzales and Foster Galloway. Between the three of them, they work really hard. I’m on the phone every day with my father, going home from work, and we have a strategy. I know I’m not there to work on the bikes with them, but we still go over a game plan of what we’re doing every day and to stay on track and things that we need to work on,” Arana said. “If there’s phone calls I need to make or schedule anything, I try to handle all that stuff so they can focus on working.” Susan Wade
SATURDAY - SALINAS FAMILY PROGRESSES TOGETHER, SAFETY SAFARI WORKER HURT IN FREAK TOP-END ACCIDENT, IS PALMER NHRA’S NEXT NEW WINNER?
SALINAS FAMILY LEARNING TOGETHER – Jasmine Salinas would be looking for a new place to sit and watch TV, if she ever got a chance to sit and watch TV.
The 27-year-old from San Jose, Calif., has been busy at NHRA dragstrips since racing a Jr. Dragster at age 15, then earning competition licenses in the Super Comp and Top Alcohol Dragster classes. For the past two years she has been a floater and assistant supercharger specialist for the Scrappers Top Fuel Dragster father Mike Salinas owns and races. And she manages one of the family businesses.
She made her Top Alcohol Dragster debut at the Gatornationals in March, and her younger sister Jianna, 21, did the same aboard a Pro Stock Motorcycle at the same Gainesville, Fla., event.
But when Dad charged to the provisional No. 1 position Friday for the Denso Spark Plugs Four-Wide Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, he said his daughters had to contribute the first $50,000 for their rides.
“Both daughters, I made them put the first $50,000 to buy these teams out of their pockets. Jasmine sold her couch to finish off the $50,000, so it was kind of cool. My kids, they work for everything. It’s really awesome. I told them [if] they put the first 50, that means they’re dedicated,” Salinas, who retained the top starting spot Saturday, said.
He said watching his daughters has “been really fun. I’m just really happy for them that they’re out here doing this, because most people don’t get to see how hard they worked. The coolest part is I’m having a great time.” He said wife Monica is “a little nerve-wracked with it, but we still have two more daughters [Jacquelin and Janae] coming in, so this is going to be fun.”
Funny Car icon John Force has experienced the spectrum of emotions that come from watching his three daughters drive race cars.
“Well, you know what’s really funny?” Salinas asked. “I stopped him at one of the races and I asked him, ‘How do you do this? How do you do this with the emotions, and you drive and do everything?’ He told me that he puts himself in a different place when he goes and drives. The nice part is he’s experienced, and I’ve got to learn a lot from him if we’re going to have our kids out here - because there are the dangers of what we’re doing and all that. NHRA, the safety crews, everybody’s the best we can have, but I think as a whole you still have that a little in your head that if something happens . . .
“But one thing, I built strong, confident young women, and I want them to live what they want to live and be as strong as they can,” he said. “They’re running companies now, so I know they can do anything. The coolest thing is I got them believing they can do anything. That’s great.”
When Ashley Force Hood began driving a Funny Car, fellow legend Kenny Bernstein – whose son Brandon raced a Top Fuel dragster several years – said once with empathy for Force that “it’s a whole lot different” having a son racing than it is a daughter.
“You know, I had five sisters, and I have four daughters and one wife, so I’ve been around women all my life,” Salinas said. “So I’m pretty hard on my girls. I really am. I don’t think I would be any different on a boy, but I know my girls. All of us, second isn’t best for us. It’s a rough household to live in when all we’ve done is No. 1 in our whole life. We don’t compete with anybody else in our world. We compete with ourselves, our personal bests.”
Jasmine Salinas earned her first round-win Saturday, using a holeshot to defeat fellow Californian Casey Grisel in the first round of Top Alcohol Dragster runoffs Saturday. Salinas’ .070 reaction time on the launch made the difference, as her slower 5.488-second elapsed time at 262.44 mph topped Grisel’s .119-second light and 5.471, 255.68. She will face Kim Parker in Round 2 when eliminations continue Sunday.
Jianna Salinas missed the Pro Stock Motorcycle cut Saturday by two-hundredths of a second in an effort to qualify for her first starting lineup.
“For Jasmine and her, we know that it’s a learning year for them,” Mike Salinas said. “It’s going to be really nice, but it’s cool to watch them progress on their own.”
He’s making progress of his own. For the first time since his “coming-out party” at last September’s U.S. Nationals, where he led all five qualifying sessions, Salinas is leading the headliner class. And he vows he’ll earn his first Wally statue one of these days.
“To be totally honest with you, I’m here for one thing, nothing else,” he said. “I’ve done what everybody else has done. Now I want to come and win. If it doesn’t happen with Alan [tuner Johnson], then it’s just not meant to be. But it’s going to happen.”
He will get his first shot at that first victory against Antron Brown and Billy Torrence, both of whom he said have helped him get established in the class. The 15-car field left Salinas’ so-called “quad” with a “bye” lane.
SAFETY SAFARI MEMBER INJURED DURING LAS VEGAS QUALIFYING - UPDATE
Racing was delayed Saturday afternoon at the Denso Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals during the final session of Pro Stock qualifying because a member of the Safety Safari crew was injured in a freakish accident in the turnout area, when she was swept up in the parachute of Alex Laughlin.
A source close to the situation told CompetitionPlus.com the injured employee was taken to a local hospital with a possible head injury.
Jessica Hatcher, senior director of public relations and communications, said the series could not comment on the situation at this time but will keep the racing community apprised as details become available.
The incident happened at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway when, unbeknown to Laughlin, his dragging parachute re-blossomed with a gust of wind and wrapped around the Safety Safari member's legs, dragging her for a few feet behind the car. Alert Safety Safari crew members chased down Laughlin’s car and instructed him to stop.
Competition Plus has no further word about the injured person's condition.
Laughlin posted on his social-media platform the following message:
“In case you didn’t see the video of the accident today at the top end in Q4 in Vegas,..My parachute caught a gust of wind as I was pulling off the race track swiped (for lack of a better word) one of the NHRA officials and drug HER for (thank goodness) only a short distance. She was taken to the hospital and been through x-rays ok and up for cat-scans next. It was a freak accident and I just ask you all to say a little prayer for her and her family tonight.”
IMPROVING FORCE WILL START THIRD – After a bit of a slow start to the season, Brittany Force is improving – despite missing a chance to run in the third overall session. The Advance Auto Parts Dragster driver will start eliminations from the No. 3 spot, racing in a quad with Cameron Ferre, Richie Crampton, and Scott Palmer. She secured the spot after a problem with the cable reverser, which prevented her from backing up after her burnout.
“We’re the No. 3 qualifier, but we had a few ups and downs. It’s better that things happen during qualifying and not on race day. We lost that third round because of a reverser cable. That was unfortunate, but we all learned from it and we’re all moving on going into race day,” she said.
Reflecting on her breakout performance at the Gatornationals three weeks ago, Force said, “We qualified No. 1, made six solid passes getting down the race track all weekend, and got to the second round. We definitely picked up our pace in Gainesville and we’re starting to figure this race car out. We’re all really excited to . . . go some rounds on race day.”
Ferre has been working hard to gain some traction this season, too, and is seeking his first round-win as the No. 14 qualifier. Crampton won the Gatornationals, and many say the increasingly confident Scott Palmer is a victory waiting to happen.
LUCKY STEVE CHRISMAN – Veteran California Top Fuel racer Steve Chrisman is making his first appearance of the year this weekend. He’s 15th in the lineup, but his quad is composed of points leader Doug Kalitta, reigning champion Steve Torrence, and Terry McMillen, who would like nothing more than to return to the winners circle where he celebrated the first victory of his career. Kalitta, the Mac Tools Dragster driver, leads No. 2 Leah Pritchett in the standings by 42 points.
DAMAGE MINIMAL FOR McGAHA, PRUSIENSKY, HARTFORD – Who says Pro Stock action isn’t exciting? The sometimes-maligned NHRA class delivered some excitement during Friday qualifying at the Denso Spark Plugs Four-Wide Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway – but maybe not the kind it hopes for.
Chris McGaha’s flash fire under the hood of his Harlow Sammons Chevy Camaro at the starting line stole the attention from a top-end collision between two other racers as they exited the racetrack. The pleasant news is that by late Friday, every driver and every car was in good shape.
Both Matt Hartford and Alan Prusiensky thought they were following the official’s directions to turn off the track, but signals apparently became crossed, and Hartford’s Total Seal Chevy Camaro banged into the driver’s door of Prusiensky’s Cold Fire Dodge Dart. Neither racer was hurt. Minor damage didn’t prevent either racer from taking advantage of Saturday’s final two qualifying sessions.
They’re friends. They’re pitted next to one another. Prusiensky bought his first Pro Stock car from Hartford. They just keep bumping into each other – this time literally.
Christine Prusiensky, the driver’s wife and car co-owner, said neither driver was upset with the other. She only half-joked that her husband might have been if the damage had been severe enough to ruin his chances to continue racing.
McGaha said Saturday morning that the fire damage to his car wasn’t as significant as he had feared, and that he and his crew (who presumably would have to pull a late gig in the pit) left the facility around 6 p.m. Friday.
Once they removed the car from the starting line Friday, the owner-driver said he was “not really sure” what caused the fire but said it “kind of acted like it backfired.” He knew one thing for certain: it was hot inside the car. “I said, ‘I’ve had enough. I’m getting the hell out of that thing!’”
He was much happier Saturday.
McGaha said he learned “the fuel line had come loose. We’d warmed it up and already done a run. Got up there [to the starting line] and it was loose, apparently. It hadn’t done anything. I was pretty mad, because I thought we were way more than done-for. I figured there was more stuff burned, melted, that we weren’t going to be able to repair.”
The damage turned out to be “a couple of plastic lines,” he said. He put a new wiring harness on the front for the engine. “That was about it,” McGaha said. “We were out of here probably by 6 o’clock or so. We were out of here before some other guys were. There were just a few things that were bad, but it wasn’t [drastic].”
Top Fuel owner-driver Scott Palmer said he doesn’t recall a top-end collision between dragsters but said of such an incident, “I’m surprised it hasn’t happened before honestly. It’s a little hectic when you pull up there. It seems like there’s enough room. I don’t think about it. I don’t think it’s a real problem. I mean, it could be problem for door cars. Door cars are a little bit hard to see out of. Might be hard for Funny Cars. In a dragster, you’ve got a pretty good view. But in a door car, it’s harder to see around than everybody thinks, too. I’ve got a Pro Mod, and it’s hard to see as you’re turning the corner. You don’t just look to your left like you do in a door car.”
PALMER NEXT FIRST-TIME WINNER? – Pro Stock Motorcycle racer Steve Johnson had plenty of bold statements to make, but one of the more positive ones was that he thinks Scott Palmer will be the NHRA’s next first-time winner in a pro category.
“I’ll take that,” Palmer said.
He said he agrees with Johnson: “Oh, definitely, 100 percent. We have all the stuff that it takes to do it. It’s up to us as a team to put it together and make it happen. I mean, in a race like this, we won three rounds in a row on Sunday. If we do it at a race like this, we win this race. So it’s definitely possible. It’s just harder than everybody thinks. It’s so hard to make everything perfect on race day and everything go right. It looks a lot easier from the outside than it is.
“We follow the CAPCO guys’ lead. They give us all the tools that it takes,” Palmer said.
He said the Capco brain trust had been in his lounge Saturday morning: “They take our runs. They look at our runs at night. They give me the guidelines. I do the tune-up deal off their guidelines, and then they make the last-minute call. We’ll change something in the staging lanes usually and then at night they look at it for me. They come back and say, ‘This is the plan for the day.’ It’s not just, ‘Here, we’ll sell you parts.’ I don’t really buy parts from them. I buy new parts now. That’s what we buy. When they order clutch disks, we order clutch disks. We are in – it’s crazy how in we are with them.”
“But I tell everybody this: We’re learning how to win. We won more rounds in a year than I did in 10 years last year.
“You have to change your mindset. You’re trying to win the race. When you’re trying to survive out here, you’re trying to qualify. And then if you win the first round, you’re almost surprised. Now we’re not surprised. Now we want to win the race,” he said.
This weekend, he said, his odds are better than usual. “Your odds are better than 50/50 of winning these rounds at this race. Usually they’re only 50/50. At this race, you have a better shot at doing it. We’ve got to go down the racetrack.”
Palmer said, “People have to realize, too, we’re not going up there in eliminations, hoping someone else messes up so we can win the round. We’re trying to win the round now. Used to we’d go up there and make sure our car went down the racetrack safe, even though it was slow, and hope they smoke the tires. Well, we’re not hoping anybody makes a mistake. We’re trying to outrun people now.
“And that’s hard for myself to even get a grasp of,” he said, “but that’s what we’re trying to do now, because we have the stuff to do it with now. We’re not racing in defense, we’re racing in offense. And we smoked the tires the first three races first round and that’s why. Honestly, it bit us a little bit, because if we’d been conservative, we’d have won a couple of those. But I’ll live with it, because I want to try to win, not hope someone else loses.”
The four-wide format is a different animal.
“In the four wide, you’ve got to go up there and get it down the track and get it down there pretty fast, because there’s three other guys in there and you can’t see what everybody’s doing. I love the four-wide, no matter what anybody thinks. I love it because it’s dramatic to me. You get to the finish line, you really don’t know, you look at the finish line and you don’t know where you’re at because you don’t know what you ran. And the crew guys, it’s confusing on the starting line. They don’t know if you ran a .72 or an .80 like yesterday. They’re waiting to see like, ‘OK, Steve [Torrence] was next to us, so .72, we’re an .80 flat.’ So they didn’t know. We were excited either way, because we went down the racetrack. It’s exciting. It’s an exciting race to me.”
LEE TO TEST – McLeod Funny Car driver Paul Lee, here this weekend to support Straightline Strategy Group colleague Clay Millican, said he plans to test the Monday after the Charlotte race at Zmax Dragway in preparation for his season debut in May at Atlanta.
LINDBERG’S WEEKEND MIXED BAG – In Friday evening qualifying, Jim Head Racing’s Jonnie Lindberg had a solo pass, especially weird in this four-wide format. But he wasn’t able to be the star on his own stage. He hit the throttle, and the engine didn’t make a peep, so his crew rolled him from the starting line. Lindberg said Saturday morning the problem was a measly one-dollar part.
“It was just a snap ring, like a one-dollar part that broke in the blower drive,” he said. “It broke a snap ring in the burnout.
“We just need some luck here in Vegas. We have a good car. We ran good in Gainesville. We just need to get over all our small gremlins,” Lindberg said.
He couldn’t tame them Saturday and wound up as the 17-car class’ odd-man-out. However, he’s faring better on the sportsman side.
Lindberg is tuning Brian Hough’s Top Alcohol Funny Car. And Hough qualified sixth and defeated Steve Macklyn in the first round Saturday.
“We won Pomona. The car runs consistent and good so I’m happy with that, so that’s pretty cool. I know the Hough family is happy that I’m helping him and I’m going to go to a lot of races this year with them. We’re going to do 15 or 16 races with them. I’m keeping busy,” Lindberg said.
He’ll have hos own car on the track later this year, but he won’t be driving it.
“My brother’s going to come drive it in Charlotte, and we might do a couple races this year with my own car. He’s flying over, and my family’s coming over for that. I’m going back to Europe this summer and tune some cars probably,” he said.
HEY, CAMARENA – Pro Stock Motorcycle’s Freddie Camarena didn’t start the 2018 season until the July race at Sonoma, Calif., in the middle of the Western Swing. But his premiere for this campaign saw him land the No. 14 starting spot. He’s in a first-round quad with champions Eddie Krawiec and Jerry Savoie and former NHRA rookie of the year Cory Reed.
BRINGING UP THE REAR – Three-time champion Angelle Sampey, riding the third Harley-Davidson for Vance & Hines, took the final qualifying position in the 16-bike order for the first time in her decorated career. She’ll race in Round 1 against top qualifier Matt Smith, as well as Angie Smith, and Ryan Oehler. Missing the grid were Jianna Salinas, Katie Sullivan, and Scotty Pollacheck.
JOHN FORCE RACING HIRES KAMM – In a continued effort to bolster its team not only on the race track but in the office, John Force Racing announced today that it has hired 32-year-old Justin Kamm as its Director of Corporate Partnerships.
“It’s important to us that we have a point person for our great sponsors and for that person to be able to create new partnerships and grow this team. We can’t do what we love to do on the race track if we don’t have their support and are able to accommodate them. Justin is a great fit for that role,” said John Force Racing CEO and driver of the PEAK Coolant and Motor Oil Chevy Camaro SS Funny Car John Force. “His experience and ability to manage high-level clients is essential. Not to mention his charisma and personality will be a great addition to the team we have taking care of things off the race track.”
Relocating to California from West Palm Beach, Fla., Kamm will manage John Force Racing’s corporate sponsorships and work closely with Director of Marketing Kelly Antonelli at the racing headquarters at Brownsburg, Ind., and Director of Public Relations Sara Slaughter at the Yorba Linda, Calif., corporate headquarters.
A 2011 graduate of Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C., where he earned a Bachelor of Arts in Music Business, Kamm has most recently worked for IRG Sports + Entertainment as the Director of Corporate Partnerships where he developed and managed corporate relationship ranging from event sponsorship, facility sponsorship, advertising agreements, as well as managed all contract negotiation, execution and contract deliverables. Kamm had his hand in marketing initiatives including social media, email marketing and on-site activation.
In addition, Kamm has a background of working with New Jersey Motorsports Park for five years where he served as Director of Marketing, Events and Sales and led the marketing department in all advertising, co-marketing partnerships, promotions and social media. He also oversaw the development of effective content, creative and digital for all advertising and promotions of events, facilities and marketing partners.
“I’m excited to be working with John Force Racing. They are a top-tier motorsports team and I look forward to being able to promote their brand and in turn the sport of drag racing,” said Kamm. “Their cast of drivers and their presence in the industry is enormous. I’m eager to start bringing in new partnerships and strengthen the relationships they have already developed with their list of great sponsors.”
As Director of Corporate Partnerships, Kamm will attend all race events, starting with this weekend’s DENSO Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. – From Sara Slaughter
FRIDAY - LANGDON PONDERS FRAGILITY OF LIFE, MCGAHA’S CAR CATCHES FIRE, BUTNER HAVING FUN AS NO. 1, ARANA JR. FAVORS PARITY, PRITCHETT GETS BY WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM HER FRIEND
DAD’S SUCCESSFUL TRANSPLANT SURGERY MAKES SON REFLECT – After abrupt team and sponsorship changes, Shawn Langdon is aware that drag racing offers no guarantees. He has been reminded this year, and particularly in the past week or so, that life in general doesn’t, either.
The driver of the Global Electronic Technology Toyota Camry is here at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway this weekend, but a huge part of his heart is a continent away, in Durham, N.C. That’s where his father, NHRA sportsman racer Chad Langdon, is recuperating from liver-transplant surgery at Duke University . Please see www.competitionplus.com/drag-racing/news/chad-langdon’s-successful-transplant-inspires-son-shawn-on-track-and-off
He wanted to stay there with his dad, but his dad urged him to get back to the racetrack. After all, that’s where Chad Langdon wants to be, too.
The Kalitta Motorsports driver said he went to the hospital cafeteria one morning and by the time he returned to his dad’s room, he found out he had missed a classic moment. Chad Langdon’s wife, Sherry, was rolling her eyes. Evidently Dad had gotten a phone call, and, Sherry said, “I heard him say, ‘Yeah – we could put a dragster in there and a golf cart here.’ I just looked at him with a crazy look on my face.” She wanted to know what that was all about, and Chad Langdon said, matter-of-factly, “Well, I got bored last night and I started browsing around on Racing Junk at race cars and I found this trailer place, and so I was thinking about getting a new trailer where we could put race cars in it and a golf cart in it.” She said, “You don’t need to be calling trailer places.”
Shawn said, “My dad’s on medication and he’s trying to order trailers and race cars. He’s already got his racing plans for when he gets healthy again. He’s going to go racing again. We got tickled about that. But he’s dead-set on getting back out there and racing again. I know he misses all his friends and family out there. He’s like, ‘I wonder how long it’s going to be until I can start racing again.’ And so it’s like in his head that he’s like dead-set ‘I’m going to get healthy again – I’m going to race a race car again.’ In his head, that’s all that matters. He wants to get healthy so he can start racing again.”
He already has told Shawn to go and win this Denso Spark Plugs Four-Wide Nationals and bring him the trophy.
While Chad Langdon’s feistiness is tremendously encouraging and a motivator to return to outstanding health, his ordeal has made his son stop and think about the uncertainty of life.
“One thing I’ve learned through this whole thing is that my life has been about racing for so long. I’ve never missed a race. When you’re in this bubble of life where it’s racing and everything’s racing-related and you go out and race the race car and do appearances and your bubble gets burst. This isn’t life. This is a part of life. But real life’s fragile. Anything can happen at any given time,” Shawn Langdon said.
“And it’s family and the people you meet along the way. It’s the stories and the things that are shared. You realize how fragile life can really be and how quickly things can turn and things can change. It really makes you appreciate the finer things of life. Don’t take anything for granted. Just appreciate what you have and love what you have and keep working for more and striving for better,” he said.
“You go through all kinds of stages in life where you’re constantly learning. I’ve had a lot of situations on the racing side of things where you get kind of humbled a little bit,” he said. “I think a lot of times we get stuck in the motions where you kind of go with the flow and do your daily things. When stuff like this happens, this is reality. Racing is a part of life. Family’s No. 1. I’m so lucky I have a great family and that my dad has been able to persevere through this and he’s got a second shot at life. I’m very thankful things have turned out the way they have. It’s just a crazy kind of thing.
“I think he was the strongest one through the whole deal, Langdon said. He said his father told him, “I know, man. I’m going to do this. I have the feeling [all will be OK].” Said Shawn, “We’re sitting here, pulling our hair out, trying to make sure he has everything, and he’s so positive through it.”
SOMEONE WILL SCREW UP – The last time Pro Stock’s Bo Butner came to Las Vegas, he won. That was in October of last year, and he had to defeat only one opponent in each round. This time the race is a four-wide affair, and he’ll line up against three others in each round. It doesn’t really matter. Each of his five Las Vegas trophies is just as shiny as one another, and he has a .500 average in 10 final-round appearances.
“I'm looking forward to four-wide. I love it,” Butner said. “It's different. It's not if, it's when, somebody screws up. If you can hold your composure and not do the same, you're going to beat them. It's going to be a fun race. I hope it’s not me [messing up]. I would be devastated. I try to go ahead and make my run, and you still have to be disciplined and be selfish. And drag racers are selfish, so it’s perfect.”
He said after Q2 that it was “very rare what just happened that round in my quad. It’s rare that I’m 1.02 on the tree and I leave first against Erica and Jeg. It’s just the little things. We’re in a routine. We’re like robots. If something catches you and it doesn’t go right, that’s what happens. That’s going to happen Sunday. You have to be ready. You can’t sit there too long because you’ll give up the run. It’s neat, it’s a challenge. I think there’s a way you could probably mess with some of these people, but I don’t think I’ll try it because I don’t want them to hate me.”
The points leader He’s having fun already – he’s the provisional leader after two Friday qualifying sessions.
“We’ve been very, very fortunate here. It’s the coolest town. The track is amazing. It was good before, but now it’s even better. I think Jeff Foster, we owe it to him. He runs the place and he knows how to make a racer happy,” Butner said. “It’s just you have your tracks. I have tracks I’m horrible at. I’ve had success in other classes. I think I’ve won five or six here in all the classes. It’s always been good to us.”
Revisiting this place where he announced he would step away from the class – only, of course, to change his mind a short time later – points leader Butner said, "I've had a great start, and KB Racing has given me a great Chevy Camaro at every race.”
Butner was runner-up here twice, in 2016 to Jason Line and in 2017 to Tanner Gray.
ARANA JR. WANTS CHALLENGE PARITY OFFERS – After racing to the top of the Pro Stock Motorcycle order Friday, Hector Arana Jr. weighed in on class controversy that has erupted between Steve Johnson and Matt Smith as a result of the NHRA Tech Committee adding weight to the V-Twin-powered entrants.
“You know what? NHRA is trying to make parity, and we need parity in the class in order for us to have a strong class. As you can see, we have the highest count in the pro category, so that’s good, but we’ve got to maintain that because there are a lot of Suzuki riders out there. You know, you want fair racing. You don’t want just the same five guys or whoever it is. You want that challenge,” the Lucas Oil Buell racer said. “I want that challenge. So I feel that it was a step in the right direction. We’ll see what it does. But it helped me out a little bit. I was always like five pounds heavy, and I didn’t have the ability to add weight to the bike. So now even though it does hurt us because we are 15 pounds heavier, now I can play the weight game and be right on target.”
How the NHRA decided to achieve parity bothers some factions of the class. Arana indicated he isn’t certain whether that was the right way or th wrong way to go about getting the desired result.
“Well,” Arana said, “the problem is if you take the weight off the Suzukis, you make it harder for bigger riders to then make weight. I don’t know if the weight was the right thing, but it’s a step. It’s a start to try to get more parity. We’ll just have to see how everything goes and look at the numbers and see what it does for the class.”
BIKERS’ FEUD TOUCHES ON ENGINE PROGRAMS – This is the first race since the NHRA gave Suzuki racers an edge by adding 15 pounds to all the bikes with V-twin engines. And that sparked a vicious debate between Steve Johnson and Matt Smith that played out midweek on a popular social-media outlet. They traded accusatory barbs that could be considered low blows, in boxing parlance. But among the back-and-forth between the two drag-racing veterans was discussion about engine programs.
“What does that mean, you have an engine program? What makes an engine program?” Johnson asked Smith. “I guess you put the engine together, I would think. Or you order the parts. Or maybe you build the parts. OK, so you do that. Do you design the camshaft? I don’t know. Maybe you do. I doubt it. Do you know the radial distance or length is in the rings? Do you know the specifics of ordering parts? I’m sure you can put them together. I see you do that. But what makes an engine program?”
Smith, speaking as though he were teaching Johnson the basics of operating a team, said, “Steve, what makes an engine program is doing your engines in-house. And I’m talking in-house, not Suzuki doing your motors, not Vance & Hines doing your motors. That means you port your own heads, you design your own camshafts – and yes, I have a camshaft designer that designs our own camshafts, and you know that, Steve. I have my own head porter. We design our own pistons. We do everything in-house. We buy the blocks and stock heads from S&S, who makes a great part. And we modify that, and we make it to the best that we can. We have four different manufacturers making crankshafts for our motorcycles. Y’all have one. So if we have a problem with one, we can go to another one.
“If you don’t want to do in-house or you’re not capable of doing in-house, then yes, Vance & Hines offers a very good program to do that. But don’t cry to NHRA when you are not running good with the power they give you, because they give you good enough power to run 6.75 [which Smith ran to qualify No. 3 in the order at Gainesville, with the class bump spot at Cory Reed’s 6.918]. I heard it from the guy’s mouth. Andrew Hines told me today, ‘They had enough power to run 6.75 at Gainesville. They just didn’t do their job.’ That’s on you, bud. That’s all I’m sayin’.
Johnson wandered into the NASCAR ranks with his prodding: “So Roger Penske . . . How about the Fords, with Brad Keselowski in NASCAR, any of the Fords, they get all their engines from Roush-Yates. They don’t have their own engine program. So in other words, Penske, those guys are hobbyists. I’m taking it from the article on Competition Plus that you put out to the world that your opinion is that we’re all hobbyists. In that sense, Warren Buffet, businessman – I thought he was a businessman, I’m thinking he’s a businessman – but because he doesn’t do his own accounting or he doesn’t do his own promotion or he doesn’t do his own marketing, he’s not a businessman?”
Smith countered, “C’mon, really? Penske Racing is not hobby racers, Steve. Just because Penske doesn’t do their motors . . . Ford does all the motors for all their people out there [in NASCAR] who runs Ford body styles. If Suzuki was out here doing all the motor for Suzuki [teams], you might have something to gripe at there, Steve. But simple fact is Suzuki left this sport a long time ago, and that’s why Harley-Davidson stepped in.”
Johnson dug into personal territory for Smith. He said, “Your dad, Rickie Smith, won all kinds of stuff. He raced Pro Stock. Did he build his own engines? Did he have his own engine program? No. Did you call him a hobbyist? I doubt it.”
Smith took offense Johnson’s remarks about his father, multi-time, multi-class champion Rickie Smith.
Said the younger Smith, “By far we had our own engine program, Steve. That’s where I learned this from. We had five guys in-house, working all the time on engines. When my dad finally quit that, Richard Maskin asked him to drive his car, [and] he did all his motors in-house at Dart Machinery. So when my dad finally quit Pro Stock car, he went into Pro Mod. My dad’s not a hobby racer. He does this for a living. But he buys his motors from Pat Musi, and now he’s getting his motors from Proline [now that he races a turbocharged engine]. My dad’s not capable of doing is own motor program no more, but he seems to be doing just fine with what he’s got. So that solves that problem.”
Johnson goaded Smith’s wife and teammate Angie Smith, saying, “Angie, you don’t have to drink the water.” [It was a knockoff of the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid,” meaning blindly falling in line with what some Svengali orders one to do.] Smith ignored that.
NHRA NOT BEING TRANSPARENT, SMITH SAYS – Surfacing in Matt Smith’s aggravation this week was his revelation that Steve Johnson wasn’t his only target. Smith said that at the PRI Show at Indianapolis in December 2018, NHRA executives (“the Tech Department and NHRA in general,” he said) told him no rules changes were coming.
“I asked because of the way we performed at Pomona,” when he set a national record and clinched his third Pro Stock Motorcycle championship at the Finals last November. “I said, ‘What are you going to do to us over the winter?’ I knew every one of these Suzuki teams were complaining to NHRA: ‘You’ve got to help us. You’ve got to slow them down.’ They told me plainly up there [at Indianapolis] that they were NOT going to mess with our class. Hands down, no way, no more changes, no nothing. They looked at the records and said Suzuki already ran fast already this year. This is in December at PRI. They ran fast. They’re not doing their job of performing, they’re not doing their job of tuning, they’re not doing their job of riding, obviously, because they ran fast at the beginning of the year and the middle of the year. So [they said] they’re not going to penalize us. They told that to me. They told that to Andrew Hines. They told that to Eddie Krawiec. They even told the Suzuki camp the same thing. They just added something to their camp, saying they might make a change after Gainesville if those guys ran slow again. My opinion, those guys might have run slow on purpose to get the rule change. I just know that NHRA told us, that they weren’t going to make a rule change.
“Suzuki ran at the same race last year. They went 6.79 last year. It was 1,000 feet better this year at Gainesville. The fastest Suzuki this year was 6.82. That don’t make sense.
“I don’t know what Steve is smoking or what he’s doing. Maybe he went to Denver for awhile and went there and smoked some stuff. But he should have been able to run a 6.70-something there if he had his crap together. And we know he didn’t, because he didn’t qualify,” Smith said.
“Why he didn’t qualify, I don’t know. He didn’t do no work over the winter. He didn’t test before Gainesville, like every other team did. Steve, why didn’t you test? I don’t know. Maybe you didn’t feel like you need to. Maybe you wanted to run slow on purpose so we would get the weight put on us, because you already knew something we didn’t know, that we weren’t told.”
“The Suzuki camps were crying in December. That’s what they were crying about, that they needed to slow the V-Twin guys down. They wanted help on their part, so they wanted a four-valve head or they wanted fuel to run. If that’s what they need, that’s fine. But they don’t need that, I’m telling you. They can run just as fast as us,” he said. “It shouldn’t have been a rule change.”
FOUR-WIDE ENTHUSIASM – Steve Johnson had more to talk about earlier this week than simply berating Matt Smith. This is the Pro Stock Motorcycle class’ first appearance at the Las Vegas four-wide spring race, and Johnson said he was jazzed. “Thank you, Bruton Smith,” he said. “I know a lot of racers aren’t wild about it. And I think that chit-chat is good.” The Birmingham, Ala.-based racer said, “I’m excited – not wild about driving 2,000 miles for one race, 4,000 miles round trip. But when you support the sanctioning body – I haven’t missed a race in 30 years – I’m excited to go and I’m excited to get our name back. We sucked bad in Gainesville. So . . . four-wide race . . . if you can’t go, tune into it on FOX.”
Actually, this four-wide event is something about which Smith and Johnson happen to agree. Smith, from King, N.C., had to travel farther than Johnson did. But he said early in the week, "I like the four-wide deal. When I explain it to people, I say it's like road-course racing in NASCAR – it's just something different. I'm really glad Vegas did it. We've never been out there in the springtime, so we're not really sure what the weather's going to be like and if it's normally faster in the spring or the fall. It's going to be a new deal for the motorcycle class to go out there, and I'm sure the first two qualifying passes will be just learning some data about the air that we've never been in before."
Smith, who had fuel-pump problems at Gainesville, is fifth in the standings.
WILL FOUR-WIDE STRATEGY WORK FOR WILK? – So far it appears to be, as owner-tuner-driver Tim Wilkerson is the Funny Car class’ provisional No. 1 qualifier.
He’s zooming up on his 500th race. That is expected to come at Atlanta; this weekend’s event will be his 497th. The 20-time winner has won at this spring Las Vegas race once, in 2008, defeating Ashley Force Hood in the final round. But the main number that’s on his mind this weekend is four, as in four-wide. He took his Levi Ray & Shoup Ford Mustang to the winners circle at the 2016 four-wide spectacle at Charlotte. So he has an idea how to master this offbeat format.
"We won the four-wide race in Charlotte a few years back, and we were the fastest car every run. I think lane choice is what won that race for us, so there's a good chance it'll be the same deal this weekend,” Wilkerson said. “We have the ability to be the fastest car every run with this Levi, Ray and Shoup Mustang, so I'll shallow up every run and see if I can stay away from running Robert Hight this time around. He was a thorn in our side in Gainesville, and we don't want any more of that.
"Depending on how the lanes are, whether all four of them are equally as good, we could make a good show for the fans. We had a lot of people there at the four-wide race last year, and it's a blast getting to entertain a crowd like that,” he said.
Wilkerson likes his odds here, considering he has two bright spots with his program.
"We had a good race in Gainesville a couple of weeks ago. The guys on our crew are getting used to going rounds, and I was pretty happy with my driving and all that,” he said. “I repositioned myself in the car before that race, and I feel a little bit better sitting in it, so I'm optimistic. You don't really know how it's going to go, but like I said, if all four lanes are good, I think we'll have a good time.”
HIGHT IN WAY OF FORCE, EVERY OTHER FUNNY CAR RACER – Robert Hight has had his way a lot of times lately, even winning while on fire and driving with a broken collarbone. But this Denso Spark Plugs Nationals threw him a tricky curveball last year in the first four-wide race at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He qualified 12th and lost in the first round with tire smoke right at the launch.
But he said he’s a little more prepared for this go-around – because he and his Auto Club of Southern California Chevy Camaro are having things go their way right now – including against boss John Force, who’s pursuing his 150th victory but has lost to Hight in all three races so far.
“The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway is always a great race and we’ve seen success there in the two-wide format,” Hight said. “Last year was the first time we’ve done a four-wide at the facility, and we didn’t run like we had hoped for. But we have a better idea going in, and with the way things are going so far this season, I think we can get a win.”
The points leader has two victories in the first three races and three consecutive top-qualifying positions and matched Kenny Bernstein’s 1987 feat of opening the season with three No. 1 starts.
“It’s pretty awesome to drive a car like this. Sometimes you count your blessings, because you don’t know how long it’s going to last and things change,” Hight said. “It really all boils down to hard work. Qualifying No. 1 at the first three races shows we have a really good handle on this race car. We’ve been quick everywhere we’ve been,” said Hight. “I really have to give it up to Jimmy Prock and Chris Cunningham, and my Auto Club guys. They’ve really put in the work to make this thing go rounds, and I can’t wait to see how it does.”
Meanwhile, Force said he feels the same about his Camaro that will carry the BlueDEF colors for Peak this weekend.
“Each race we’re getting this thing closer and closer to where it needs to be. Its moving fast, so now we just need to go more rounds and get to the final, The PEAK guys have been putting in a lot of hard work and I know it will pay off soon, maybe at The Strip. Win 150 is around the corner for us,” Force said.
At this racetrack, Force has a total of 48 elimination-round victories, six event trophies, and three No. 1 starts. He won the spring event in 2010 and 2015, and in 2002 and 2011 he had low elapsed time in qualifying.
Although he won the first-ever four-wide, in 2010 at Charlotte’s zMAX Dragway, he has yet to master the format here. “Last year’s event was the first for us in the four-wide set up at The Strip, and it was fun. We didn’t go rounds like we had hoped for, but I’m hoping we can this time around,” Force said. “It’s exciting for the West Coast fans and exciting for us drivers, too. There’s nothing like racing four-wide.”
WHERE’S STEVE-O? (NO. 2 IN THE LINEUP RIGHT NOW) – Steve Torrence has been a lot of places in the past few weeks. He has been in Austin to receive honors at the Texas State House of Representatives for his 2018 Top Fuel championship. He has been at Kilgore College to help announce a student-incentive program. He has been at a Professional Bull Riders event at Little Rock and at the Bar None Cowboy Church at Tatum, Texas (and even placed second in a rodeo roping contest). But he hasn’t been in the NHRA winners circle since he put an exclamation on his 2018 championship season last November.
He’s getting closer to his first 2019 victory, if his tentative No. 2 spot Friday in the qualifying lineup behind Mike Salinas is any indication. And although he has insisted he isn’t crazy about four-wide racing, he has proven to be pretty doggone skilled at it. He was won the past three four-wide races.
“This is a sport of routine and reaction,” the Capco Contractors Dragster driver said, “but the four-wide takes you away from all that. With the two extra lanes and the two additional opponents, you start over-thinking everything and you wind up making mental mistakes. It’s a lot tougher than it looks from the grandstands, I promise you that.”
He still owns the track speed record he set here last fall in traditional two-wide style at 333.33 mph.
CAPPS HAS WISH LIST – Ron Capps is ready for warmer weather, a first victory at this race in a decade, and a move up in the standings. "The best part about this weekend is the weather. We’ve had cold weather the first three races, much colder than we’ve ever had before. I think a lot of the teams are really pumped to see high 70s, low 80s for the first time this season,” the NAPA Dodge Charger Hellcat driver said.
Capps, the 2009 winner of this race, said, “This event starts a string of a lot of back-to-back races over the next few months, and I think we’re going to see our NAPA team make a run up in the points. Couldn’t think of a better place to start that run than one of my favorite tracks that we go to.”
He is second in the Funny Car order with two Saturday qualifying chances to overtake Tim Wilkerson.
Capps was runner-up in 2006 and 2007, but he won the fall race here in 2001, 2006, 2011, and 2012. So he long has been a fan of this rack but even more so after owner Bruton Smith last year added two lanes.
“A year ago, as we were headed to the inaugural Vegas Four-Wide race, we were all excited because we were going to a brand-new race track. We found out once we got there just how good of a job they did building four fantastic lanes,” Capps said.
Overall, he’s hoping to get out of his ninth-place rut and confident he can.
“This year, leaving Gainesville, we’ve had an uncharacteristically slow start to the season for our NAPA Auto Parts team. We’re ninth in points, but I really feel like we’re on the verge of a win at any given time,” Capps said. “We’ve fought some bugs here and there the first three races, and we’re still really trying to get a feel for these new DSR chassis. We’ve run both cars with our new Dodge Hellcat body, and it’s showing us it’s got a lot more downforce with less drag. I feel like we left Gainesville with a lot of really good information that [crew chief Rahn] Tobler is going to put to good use.”
PROCK CURIOUS ABOUT FOUR-WIDE FROM DRIVER’S ANGLE – At his most recent race, Austin Prock had some fun on social media, warning the sport’s icons that it was time show the legends what “this rookie is all about.” Now its time for this rookie to see what four-wide racing is all about. But he doesn’t sound the least bit intimidated. It’s his first time driving the Montana Brand/Rocky Mountain Twist Dragster at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, but he has made passes here in the Funny Car that Courtney Force was driving at the time. He does have some familiarity with the four-wide format as a crew member. He worked on Brittany Force’s dragster.
“Just one year ago, I was stabbing the gas in Courtney Force’s Advance Auto Parts Nitro Funny Car for the first time. It's crazy to think how far we've come in just one year and now I’m racing in the Top Fuel class,” Prock said. “This is my first time racing four-wide. When you have four 11,000-horsepower hot rods going down the track, it’s really something. So I'm excited to be a part of it. I’m ready to stage up and see what that’s all about and go some rounds.”
He said, “Our Montana Brand/Rocky Mountain Twist Dragster should be running on mean. We found some things that were holding us back while at the shop. So we made changes, and it should really benefit our performance. My team and Jon Schaffer and Ronnie Thompson have been putting in work. Every race we’re getting more info, getting better, so I’m confident in my team, and I’m ready to bring what we’ve learned to The Strip.”
CRAMPTON WANTS TO REWRITE ENDING – Fresh off his Gatornationals Top Fuel victory, Richie Crampton said he expects to improve on his 11th-place finish last year after he won at Gainesville in 2018. However, he said, “There’s no question we have a more consistent car this year, and that builds more confidence in me as a driver to work on my reaction times and try to win those close races on the starting line. The way Kurt [Elliot] and Connie [Kalitta] have the car running right now, we haven’t set the world on fire in qualifying, but we’ve gone down the track a lot, and I know they’re going to build off that. We’ve put those first-round losses from last year behind us and continue to move onward and upward.”
A year ago, Crampton only won nine more rounds over the final 21 races. “We did have a rough end to last season but for me, I knew if I just continued to do my job and have faith in my team and crew chief and my car, the wins would come back and obviously they have. I’m just focusing on becoming a dependable driver, and I want to earn the right to be driving the car I’m driving. It’s hard to keep your chin up when you have a rough weekend, but you’ve got to. There’s not too many easy rounds. It just goes to show you how Top Fuel is this year. Every driver competing in Top Fuel is the cream of the crop and every round win is getting harder and harder to come by. But I have such a great team behind me, and they put me in a great position to win.”
JOON MAKING REPAIRS, PLANS TO RACE AT CHARLOTTE – Because of a spectacular-looking engine explosion during the final Top Fuel qualifying session Saturday night at Gainesville, Lex Joon has been scrambling to repair the damage and prepare two motors (including a spare) before he can come back to the racetrack again. He said he expects that to be the NGK Spark Plugs-sponsored four-wide event April 26-28 at Charlotte, N.C. He said if all goes well there, he’ll have the JLM Lubricants Dragster at Atlanta Dragway the first weekend in May.
“All is coming back together again,” he said, lamenting that blowing up his equipment “is something you hate to do – they’re all really nice parts.
“We are in the process to get one engine ready. It’s in the car. We fixed all the damage that was caused by the fire. There were a lot of plastic lines burned and some other parts that needed to be replaced. That’s all done. And we are building another motor right now to have a spare one,” Joon said via video on his social-media page.
“People wanted to know what happened when we were at the Gatornationals, all the flames and fire and everything,” he said. So he explained the incident.
Holding a piston and a broken part of a connecting rod, Joon said, “When we left the starting line, this rod split. The part that broke and went through the oil pan, causing a hole in the pan and getting the oil out of the engine, and that caught fire. When this happened, it caught another ro. It opened the intake valve, which broke because the piston was hitting the valve. And that caused the motor basically to backfire. That was the big explosion. The fuel that normally goes into the engine that will make the power just burned on the outside caused the big explosion and all the flames. It was just for a brief moment, but NHRA [cameras] really captured it nice and put it on slo-mo and you could see what happened. It showed the force, and it told you that nitromethane is really explosive.”
Joon was amused that some observers speculated he was using a different type of fuel – “which I thought was pretty funny,” he said. “People saw a green flame. The green flame came because the piston was hurt. It’s scuffed. Pistons are made from aluminum. When an aluminum piston comes apart, then you can see a green flame. It was not a head gasket. It was just a piston that came apart, causing a green flame to come out of the header.”
He said, “It caused a lot of damage. It damaged the crank[shaft]. It was a really nice crank.” He said the engine block “has a big hole in it. That’s one of the reasons that caused the fire. The rod was trying to come out [through the hole]. It pushed a hole in the motor, so more oil was coming out of it, which caused more fire. The block is a write-off. Everything is fixable, but to fix this is too much money. It’s a total loss. It would be easier to buy a new motor and start building again. The block is basically done. The crankshaft, rods, pistons, camshaft, everything needs to be replaced.
“Why it comes apart . . . It has something to do with the quality of the part. So we made a decision to buy another brand of rods so we are sure it won’t happen again,” Joon said. “It’s an expensive lesson, but it is what it is. The only thing you can do is learn from what happened and move on.”