2019 NORTHWEST NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
JOHN FORCE CAPTURES HISTORIC 150th WIN IN SEATTLE - The chase for his latest milestone is over for John Force.
The legendary 16-time world champion won his 150th career national event when he took home the title at the Magic Dry Organic Absorbent NHRA Northwest Nationals Sunday in Seattle.
Force clocked a 3.971-second elapsed time at 320.58 mph to edge Ron Capps’ 4.018-second lap at 309.91 mph at Pacific Raceways.
Force’s historic victory march Sunday consisted of wins over Jim Campbell, Robert Hight, Jack Beckman and Capps.
This was Force’s first win of the season and his first trip to victory lane since the Mile-High Nationals in Denver in July of 2018.
“Well, it has been 25 races since Denver last year,” Force said. “I give credit to a lot of crew chiefs over the years. I came here the first time with (the late) Steve Plueger and a he was a great chassis builder and tuner. I came here with Austin Coil and then with Bernie Fedderly, the greatest crew chiefs in the world. But, (crew chief) (Brian) Corradi and Daniel Hood and (Tim) Fabrisi they led the charge. The have had to put up with me all year, not happy with the way the car steered, how I sat in it, not happy with so many things. And then I got the monkey on my back and it drives you nuts. You go to bed every night and (but) the monkey taught me so much, that you need to focus on your car if you want to do good.”
Force, who pilots his PEAK Coolant and Motor Oil / Lighting Chevrolet Camaro SS, said up until recently he wasn’t focusing on understanding his Funny Car.
"I run around and sell sponsors and I'm just doing stuff all the time and I don't even know my car,” he said. “Corradi and (Austin) Coil said. ‘You've got to get to know your car. You've got to live it. You've got to love it. You've got to study the drivers. I said I do all that, but I wasn't. So, sometimes you need a slap in the face and that was the monkey that made me focus. To live my car and I’ve been living it here, probably in the last four or five races. If you notice, it has been popping up fast and we found something real critical.
Robert (Hight) has stood by me through everything. He just amazes me. When a lot of people said it is over for John Force. Give me a good race car, I can race. I may not be as young as these kids and a hot shot on that tree. But I’m excited. (Austin Prock) wins right behind me and I went to the stands and I screwed up their parade, but I owed it to get to the fans. I never made it to Topeka (Kan.), I went over the fence and my leg went out, so I went over the fence this time and they were dragging me over and I just wanted to get there to tell them I love them and then I about tipped over.”
Force made his NHRA nitro Funny Car debut in 1977 and didn’t get his first national event win until 1987 when he beat Ed “The Ace” McCulloch in the finals in Montreal.
“I’m excited for me to get rid of the pain, and I’m glad it is over,” said Force about his 150th win. “I’m going to race, but I can calm down now and not live with that thinking I would never get it. No more jokes, I’m going to come race my car. I’ve only got a few years left and I want to enjoy, and I want to have fun. I’ve been trained to win and when you can’t win, it is just not fun. The budgets get crazy, the road gets tougher, but you guys are still writing stories.”
Force improved his record to 62-41 against Capps in elimination rounds and to 12-8 in final rounds.
“Capps, I love him,” Force said. “I tried to hire him years ago, and I hope I didn’t embarrass him. I’m the guy who kissed him, he didn’t kiss me. Sometimes I just love him. He wanted to beat me. He was giving it all he had. I just grabbed and kissed him because he’s the real deal. He’s a real great racer. Today luck was with me and I got the win.”
This was Force’s ninth career win at Pacific Raceways. He also has wins at the track in 1991, 1993-94, 1996, 2000, 2003-2004, and 2014.
“I crashed here so many times and I’ve won so many races here and there are certain tracks I’m really happy at,” Force said. “I love Indy, Pomona, it is job for me because I have so many family (members) there, but I’ve always loved Seattle. I love Vegas, but I don’t party in Vegas. I had to stop drinking with my head injuries and I have not had a drop, it has been over a year. I’m feeling pretty good and I’m starting to come around. I’ve had some problems and I have to wear special glasses because my eyes are bad, but I have no complaints. I’m 70 years old and I’m going to do it because I love the fans and God will tell me when it is time. You’ll know when your old body says, ‘your done, you’re done.’ But I need to build new stars. I need to build. I need to build Brittany. Robert is already there. Brittany’s a champion, but she has so much to learn and I have to build (Austin) Prock and all day long he was killing them. He’s young and he’s strong. I don’t have that strength anymore. No matter how hard you try, you don’t have that fire. I get it in my head, but it is hard to make your legs do what they want to do like these young kids. But I’m giving it all I got, and I got a win, 150.”
Force’s has at least one national event win in 32 of the last 33 seasons. During his career – 150 wins – Force has beat 41 different final round opponents, most often besting Cruz Pedregon (16 times), former teammate and current FOX Sports analyst Tony Pedregon (13 times) and Capps (11 times).
Pro Stock star Warren Johnson is second on the NHRA all-time career victory list with 97 national event wins. Force made his first appearance in an NHRA national event final round when he lost Kenny Bernstein in Baton Rouge, La.
“I remember going to nine finals and I lost, and I didn’t want to put that in my head, it is too crowded, too many beer cans in there,” Force said. “Failure is part of it and that’s what I told Brittany.”
Force is now second in the season points standings – 186 points behind leader Hight.
“I can give this a run,” said Force about winning another world championship. “Robert is a killer on the lights, and they all are. Everybody can beat me, that ain’t no secret. I have to fudge and cheat and go deep and all that stuff, but sometimes it is only a little, but it might be enough when they are running side-by-side, so I can do that and that’s what I have to do. I don’t want to screw with anybody. I do what I do, I make up my mind and sometimes I go a completely different direction and sometimes I just screw up like not having brakes and stuff the last couple of races. They found out it wasn’t a brake problem, the clutch was driving me. I’m in the hunt. All I ever wanted to do was be in the hunt.” Tracy Renck
PROCK TAG-TEAMS WITH BOSS FORCE, SPOILER HARTFORD TO STAND IN SEATTLE SPOTLIGHT - Austin Prock, the fresh face of the NHRA’s Top Fuel class, has been anything but timid since he burst on the scene this February, gaining a ride in a dragster almost literally on the eve of the season-opener but asserting himself right out of the gate.
He has had fun, pedaling the throttle to defeat 2017 champion Brittany Force (on whose crew he worked last year) in his first elimination round, challenging fellow rookie and buddy Jordan Vandergriff to a T-shirt sales contest, and throwing class dominator and reigning champion Steve Torrence off-guard by telling him, “I’m coming for you” – in his first-ever day of qualifying.
He isn’t cocky or brash or obnoxious. He just is confident, this driver of the Montana Brand / Rocky Mountain Twist Dragster.
Prock got that first round-win on the first race day of the year. He bested Vandergriff in T-shirt sales. And he came for Torrence in Sunday’s final round NHRA’s Magic Dry Organic Northwest Nationals at Pacific Raceways. And he claimed his first victory, knocking off Torrence, who brought a 46-7 elimination-round record to the starting line in his 40th final since the start of the 2016 campaign.
He shared the spotlight Sunday with boss John Force, who finally grabbed his milestone 150th Funny Car triumph, and Pro Stock winner Matt Hartford, who denied Greg Anderson the distinction of becoming the first pro driver in any class to sweep the Western Swing twice.
With that, Prock made a strong argument in his bid for the Auto Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award (a/k/a Rookie of the Year Award) with his winning 3.875-second, 307.86-mph performance on the 1,000-foot suburban-Seattle course. And he got a wish fulfilled.
“I wanted to race him in the finals,” Prock said. I said, ‘When we get to my first final, I want to run against Steve Torrence, because I wanted to be the guy who stops him. It’s pretty bad-ass that the rookie stopped the champ.”
Although he said he was speechless, Prock had plenty to say. And he began by saying, “I’ve just got to thank the Lord up above and John Force for giving me this opportunity. I can’t believe we stopped ‘them Capco Boys.’ I told you guys in Pomona I was coming for them.
“This is a dream come true. I’ve wanted this since I was knee-high. Ever since I could think, I wanted to drive a Top Fuel car. It all came together just perfectly,” he said after beating Leah Pritchett, Clay Millican, and Mike Salinas to set up his ideal showdown.
That he shared his career-first victory with Force on his own history-making day didn’t surprise Prock at all.
“Me and Danny Hood [co-crew chief for and son-in-law to Force], we called it from the get-go,” Prock said. “I’m just pissed that Force is going to steal the cover of National Dragster.”
Torrence, making his 11th final-round appearance of the season, had a .135-second advantage but lost himself in a fountain of tire smoke around halftrack and slowed to 4.984 seconds. That ruined the Denver winner’s hope of combining with dad Billy Torrence, the Sonoma winner last week in California, for a “family sweep” of the Western Swing.
The upside for Torrence was that he clinched the regular season championship and extended his lead in the standings. He also became the first racer in any pro class in the Countdown era (since 2007) to earn three consecutive so-called “regular season titles.”
Although the points will be adjusted and his colossal 621-point advantage will shrink to 20 over his closest challenger, Torrence still has a margin of about 31 elimination rounds over Antron Brown when Mello Yello Series action shifts to Brainerd, Minn., for the Aug. 16-18 Lucas Oil Nationals. Prock is tied with Richie Crampton for eighth place.
Torrence said in the final round, he “just felt it start to spin the tires. We didn’t expect that, but that’s why we race.” As for why that happened, he said, “We’ll just have to wait for the autopsy.”
But he was gracious toward Prock: “It was a big win for Austin Prock. He’s a great kid. All you can do is congratulate him and his team and get ready for the next one.”
Torrence beat Steve Chrisman, Brown, and Shawn Reed to advance and make a run at his ninth 2019 victory.
In a sport that has needed a breath of fresh air, Torrence stormed to the forefront with his independent family team to shake up the status quo. Then with his unprecedented performance, especially in the past two or three years, Torrence, in a sense, became the status quo. The two are friendly, certainly, but now Torrence The Texas Terror has a newcomer, an Austin-come-lately, to contend with.
It’s just one victory for Prock and one slight bobble for Torrence. But that shot heard throughout the Top Fuel class Sunday just might be the shot that energizes the sport. Susan Wade
MATT HARTFORD PLAYS SPOILER, WINS SEATTLE - Pro Stock driver Matt Hartford played the spoiler Sunday at the Magic Dry Organic Absorbent NHRA Northwest Nationals Sunday in Seattle.
And, he was all right with that fact.
Hartford, on a holeshot, beat Greg Anderson keeping Anderson from sweeping the famed Western Swing – Denver and Sonoma, Calif., and Seattle.
Hartford clocked a 6.606-second elapsed time at 209.33 mph to Anderson’s quicker 6.596-second ET at 210.31 mph. The difference was at the starting line as Hartford had a .023 reaction time compared to Anderson’s .054 reaction time.
This was Hartford’s second career national event win and first this season. Hartford lost to Anderson in the finals at the Mile-High Nationals in Denver July 21.
Hartford’s victory parade Sunday consisted of wins over points leader Bo Butner, No. 1 qualifier Jeg Coughlin Jr., Deric Kramer and Anderson. Hartford is running Elite Motorsports engines.
“I’ve said for years you have to qualify well if you want to have good success on Sunday,” Hartford said. “Up until the last couple of years we really had not qualified well and we had a lot of first-round losses. This year we have qualified well except for one race earlier in the year and this race. We qualified ninth at this race, which is the worst place to qualify. You’re going to be the first pair out and you’re not going to have lane choice and if you’re lucky enough to win that round, you have to run the No. 1 qualifier in the second round if he gets through. You’re not looking for a long day by the odds if you qualify ninth. However, they say we don’t race dynos on paper we race them out here on the dragstrip and 1,320-feet later we had a win light against Bo, which really set the momentum for the day.”
Following his victory against Butner, Hartford beat Coughlin and then he won a pedal fest against Kramer in the semifinals.
“Jeg did shake a little bit I think he went 6.95, and we made a really nice run (6.578) against Jeg,” Hartford said. “We knew we couldn’t back down. First of all, Jeg is one of the best drivers in the history of the class and they have a really good program, that being said, we are not scared of them. We went up there, not only trying to win, but go for lane choice if we could win. We made a good run, but not as good as Kramer, so we lost lane choice going into the (semifinals). If you had watched what was going on the right lane certainly did not seem like it was going to be the lane with the winning rounds.”
Hartford, who drives the Total Seal Piston Rings / CIP1 Pro Stock Camaro, discussed what his strategy was in the semis against Kramer.
“We pulled back quite a bit, thinking we pulled back enough to get through the right lane and knowing that Mike Hiner (Kramer’s crew chief) is aggressive and Deric is good on the tree,” Hartford said. “(Hiner) is a good friend of ours and I’m not going to say we worked together, but we certainly over the years have raced a lot together and traded a lot of stories back and forth. To be able to race him and beat him on a pedal fest was pretty awesome.”
Anderson was 10-0 against Hartford in elimination rounds, including Denver last month.
“Greg Anderson is obviously one of the best ever who raced in the class,” Hartford said. “He’s closing in on some pretty monumental records, and Greg beat me 10 times out of 10 times. I have told him he’s like a slot machine, I’m just going to keep pulling the handle sooner or later, he’s going to pay out. I think this payout here probably hurts him worse than if it would have been anywhere else because to sweep the Swing would be an accomplishment that’s incredible.
One again, I go back to we went up there knowing we had to go A to B and whoever leaves first should win that race because he only went 59 in the semis and we felt we could go 59 or 60 in the finals. We figured we had a good chance. The driver had to be on his game.”
After his victory, Hartford moved up from fifth to fourth in the season points chase.
“I think that the support we have from Total Seal and CIP1 and all of our sponsors that we have the equipment to go out there and run for a championship,” Hartford said. “Elite certainly provides us with engines that are definitely capable of winning races. What we need to do is just continue to not make mistakes, like we did in Sonoma, and I just have to continue to drive well. If we can put all that together, I think we can have a white hat at the end of the year and there would be nothing sweeter than to be able to pass those around.” Tracy Renck
FRIDAY’S LEADERS STILL NO. 1, BIKER LAYNE SURVIVES WITH NO BROKEN BONES, EXPLOSION WRECKS TASCA’S FUNNY CAR BODY, LOCAL DRAG-BOAT VET REED CHOOSES PACIFIC RACEWAYS OVER SEAFAIR, PACIFIC RACEWAYS SET FOR NEW REVENUE TO COVER IMPROVEMENTS AND TECH PLANS
NOTHING BROKEN – Miraculously, Top Fuel Harley racer Beau Layne did not suffer a concussion or any broken bones in Friday’s high-speed spill during qualifying at Pacific Raceways for the Magic Dry Organic Absorbent Northwest Nationals.
However, his upper left arm and elbow were banged up after he hit the guard wall at nearly 216 mph past the finish line on the quarter-mile course near Seattle.
Layne underwent surgery Friday evening at Valley Medical Center at Renton, Wash., and Saturday morning was awaiting a consultation with a cosmetic surgeon.
“I want to say thank you to everyone who has reached out to me and [wife] Johanna to check on us. I am doing much better this morning,” Layne posted on his Facebook page Saturday. “My pain is under control, and I didn’t break anything. The deep gash in my elbow was cleaned out last night in the OR and we’re waiting for a consultation with the plastic surgeon. Again, thank you to everyone for your support and keeping us in your thoughts.”
TASCA DETONATES FUNNY CAR BODY – Bob Tasca III’s Motorcraft /Quick Lane Ford Mustang team had a mad thrash before the final qualifying session Saturday, courtesy of a sizeable engine blast toward the end of his third overall run. Tasca was unhurt, but his carbon-fiber body didn’t fare as well. It was destroyed as it exploded and piled up behind the cockpit at grotesque angles.
But Tasca took it in stride and even used a little humor immediately afterward.
“We want to put on a show for these fans, give them a little excitement,” Tasca teased.
“Last night we did it by going quicker and faster than anyone out here. But today . . . unfortunately, that’s nitro racing,” he said.
“We’ve got plenty of Mustang bodies back in the trailer. I’m fine,” he said. “It was just difficult to see. You don’t ever want to go in the other lane and affect that other driver. Fortunately, we got to a stop. Everything did what it was supposed to do.
“So the boys back in that Motorcraft camp . . . we have plenty of parts and pieces. We’ll have a car ready to go here shortly,” Tasca said.
And after retaining his No. 1 qualifying position from Friday, Tasca said his pit between the third and fourth sessions “was madness. We had to switch engine. We had to roll up on the chassis. We had to switch bodies. We had to assess what failed.
“Clearly, it’s not what you to have to do in the middle of a race, rebuild the whole car,” Tasca said, “but these guys are battle-tested.”
After the debris from that was cleared from the racing surface, the West Coast Grudge care ran a few pairs, then officials discovered a problem with the Christmas Tree electronic starting device. So action was delayed further.
Tasca said his car was on a strong run until it smoked the tires “and immediately blew up. A firewall came up in front of my face. I’ve never not been able to see in one of these cars. I looked out the side window. That’s what they make them for, right? I needed to find a reference point. When you’re disoriented at that speed, you can get in trouble real quick.” He said once he looked out the side window and saw the wall and realized he still was in his own lane, he was relieved.
TOP QUALIFIERS STAY SAME – Mike Salinas (Top Fuel), Bob Tasca III (Funny Car) and Jeg Coughlin (Pro Stock) held Saturday onto their No. 1 qualifying spots from Friday.
REED CHOOSES LAND OVER WATER – Less than five years ago, Shawn Reed had raced in Top Fuel – but only on water, with drag boats. Racing on water is a big deal in this area where the Lake Tapps, Wash., resident grew up. However, unlimited hydros, not drag boats, are the center of attention at the annual Seafair festival that traditionally shares this August weekend with the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.
Reed was more than familiar with drag racing, though as he grew up in Seattle and nearby Puyallup, and he used to attend the legendary 64 Funny Cars phenomenon at this track when it was named Seattle International Raceway.
“What really got me the bug was my first girlfriend, Debbie Rogers, who was the daughter of Richard Rogers. And he had a Nitro Funny Car, and then he had a dragster. We used to go to the  Funny Cars [that features such notables as] 240 Gordie Bonin, and Gentleman Hank Johnson. I used to just love that,” he said. “I’ve always had a need for speed. I mean, anything that was fast. I’d race anything there is. And to me, it’s not really about going 500 miles an hour or 400 miles an hour. It’s about I want to beat the guy over there, because I want to show everybody I’m better than him. And it’s not really about the speed – I’d race anything.”
However, he never had participated in the sport until he attended Frank Hawleys’ Drag Racing School: “Never even drove on the racetrack. Never been to my high-school drags, nothing. I’ve never saw a tree come down.” He went to Gainesville, Fla., to pursue his Super Comp license December 14, 2014 - and he learned all kinds of things that intrigued him.
“I told everybody in Frank Hawley’s school that I’m going to be back here in three months, driving a Top Fuel Dragster and 25 people thought I was full of crap. And 25 people came up to me three months later and went, ‘Holy crap!’ And I think there were 18 cars here and I qualified.” In 2018, he was runner-up at the Gatornationals and qualified in top half of the field for th first time with four strong runs here at his home track in the Hughes Oilfield Transportation Dragster for Bob Vandergriff Racing.
So, as he said, he never has “driven anything on asphalt in my life except Top Fuel Dragster.”
His boat-racing experience, he explained, is more like this than Seafair’s hydros: “I’m just like this but on water . . . straight quarter-mile drag boats. I don’t do round stuff.”
He said he thinks the Seafair show is “hard to follow. I think people go there for the drinking, warm weather, by the water, you know. Same thing with like NASCAR. I went to Daytona – it’s hard to follow.”
Drag-racing fans might complain about down-time. But, according to Reed, “Boat racing is 10 times worse because we go down the track. I drive an alcohol boat so I can drive off the course, but the fuel boats, the Top Alcohol and those guys, they slow down and if somebody crashes, it’s an hour and a half delay. It takes a long time to get the boats. They try to run a pair every three minutes, where here it’s every minute. So the boat racing’s kind of slow.”
Reed said when it comes to drag racing, “I was born for it, but the thing is you’ve got to be in the right spot at the right time – and I was never. I started my business in 1998 with a hundred bucks, and then it took me 10 years to really get that thing going to where I was making enough money to even be able to afford a $100,000-a-year drag boat. But in 14 or 15 years of running a drag boat – I run Pro Mod, which is the most competitive class; it’s like Pro Stock of NHRA and it’s the most competitive class there is – I either won the championship or was runner-up every single year. Nobody likes me coming to the races, because they’re just like, ‘Ah, crap.’ I was World Champion again last year, too.”
One of his role models was Texan Eddie Hill, who participated in both sports, as has Funny Car owner-driver Bob Bode and Top Fuel racer Kebin Kinsley. Scott Palmer owns the drag boat Liquid Voodoo but didn’t race it.
“Eddie Hill was the big one. He went from car to boat and then I think back to car,” Reed said. “But the boats . . .I’ve been asked to drive every Top Fuel boat there is. Scotty [Lumbert] was driving for David Kirkland, who basically tunes for Kebin, [and] when Scotty got seriously hurt three years ago in Marble Falls, Texas, David Kirkland, the owner of the boat, called me up and asked me if I wanted to drive for him. He goes, ‘Either you’re going to drive for me or I’m going to sell all my stuff.
“I was driving a car already,” Reed said, “and I said, ‘Look, if I wasn’t driving a car, maybe. But this is where I want to be.’ I feel even at 330 miles per hour, as long as that car stays inside the cement walls, I have a 98 percent chance of walking away. In a boat, you have about a 50/50 shot at ever walking again. And I’m like, ‘I just don’t want to take that risk. You know, once you strap in, it’s a whole different ballgame. You just go. But I still feel, I don’t get near the nerves driving this. I’ve got over a thousand laps in my boat, but I don’t get near the nerves in this as I do in my boat, because it just takes one prop shaft breaking, one rudder that breaks, anything under water breaks and you’re going swimming. End of story.
“Well, the problem with water is it’s worse, because you turn sideways and go into a wall, you know the car crumbles up, you flip upside down and you roll down the track, you skid down the track. In water you don’t do that, you stop instantly. Most every death that happens in boats is because of sudden impact. Your aorta rips away, your brain comes out your ear. Because you go from 225 miles an hour to zero in five feet. You don’t do that here no matter what,’ he said.
“That’s why everybody says they can make these [dragstrip] lanes a little wider. You don’t want to. If this lane was wider, the car could turn more and [cause] more head-on impact. Take Steve Torrence’s crash at Dallas. So he was in the left lane blew a left tire and went into the wall, and that was pretty violent. But think about if the right tire went out, I mean he would have gone way more straight into the wall on that side.”
Reed said he won’t be returning to racing on water. “Not going to do boats, because Lucas Oil sold it and I just run for world championships and I want to run the big stage, the big show, and that’s really why I’m here. This is better now. If I could run 10 races a year, if I could run eight or whatever in the boat in a pro sanctioning body national series, I probably would. But they don’t have that this year, so I’m just going to park the boat.”
PACIFIC RACEWAYS POISED FOR IMPROVEMENTS – Before the end of this calendar year, Pacific Raceways will see construction of motorsports garages that are part of Phase One of the sweeping tech innovation center initiative on this multipurpose property, according to facility President Jason Fiorito.
His family, which has owned the property for decades, also owns an excavation business that has been a source of revenue to operate the racetracks, which include a showcase 2.25-mile road course that incorporates the dragstrip. And that gravel on the grounds, which has been used for such projects in the past as a new runway at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, is about to fetch some serious money to prop up the new construction.
“After 15 years of arguing about permits with King County, we finally have the green light to not only start excavating gravel that gives us some initial investment capital, but also start putting up the motorsports garages at the end of 2019. The long-anticipated cashflow necessary to make some pretty aggressive upgrades at the facility is in the works right now,” Fiorito said.
“We’ll start taking in gravel money at the end of this month, and then it will be a steady source of cashflow for us over the next three years,” he said. “We also envision having our first tenants in our buildings the first quarter of 2020 that provides additional investment capital.”
The dragstrip that has been the site of the Northwest Nationals for 32 years, is expected to have some upgrades, Fiorito said.
“Ed [Garfield], our dragstrip manager, was just telling me that the first 660 feet of concrete here is slated to be replaced over the next two years. We’re going to start adding lighting for not only our weekly events, but our national event,” which he said, “can go farther into the evening, if necessary. We’re looking at some pretty significant improvements to the bathroom and concession facilities.”
He said, “We’re trying to keep up with some of the rest of the facilities across the country. And I know we’ve been overly optimistic on how quickly we can get these permits perfected, but now that the grading permit is issued and the land use has been approved for the buildings, we’re on our way to the significant improvements that the facility deserves.”
Fiorito said he recognizes Pacific Raceways and he, as well, have had “credibility issues” since he took over management of the facility 17 years ago. Much of that has been overly optimistic expectation on his part and a much more drawn-out permitting process than he anticipated. But he also cautioned that Northwest Nationals fans aren’t going to arrive here next August and see massive improvements to the dragstrip.
“The interim-use permit allows us development on the 40-acre parcel as you drive in the facility. The master use plan is a global redevelopment of the entire property, including new tower facilities, new hospitality suites, new grandstands on the north side of the track, new concession buildings, new driving school building, new main office facilities, additional lighting on the dragstrip, additional new pavement on the dragstrip,” Fiorito said. “The acquisition of the permits this year starts a wave of improvements that you’ll see pretty aggressively implemented over the next 10 years.”
He said not to anticipate an immediate transformation: “We’re not expecting that over the next six months, because, really, that work happens over the winter. So we’re only a few months away from our construction period here, but we’ve got about a year-and-a-half lag before you see pretty aggressive upgrades starting to show up on the facility – not this winter but next winter.”
Fiorito clearly is proud of the improvements he has managed to make in the face of difficult permitting processes in the recent past.
“Well, but to be fair to myself, we’ve got two-and-a-half-million-dollars’ worth of grandstands sitting on the southside. We’ve repaved the concrete on the dragstrip twice. We’ve got well over a million dollars into repaving the dragstrip. We have new lighting. We had new bathrooms 17 years ago. We have dumped a bunch of money into the facility, and some of it goes unnoticed,” he said, “but we realize that the facility is not on par with other venues across the country. And we’ve been waiting patiently both as a family and as a racing community to realize the capital necessary for those improvements.
“It’s all a question of how to allocate limited resources. It has always been a question of not what to do here but how to allocate limited resources. And the gravel extraction is profitable, the buildings are profitable, but it still doesn’t create ‘Bruton Smith money,’ Fiorito said, referring to the business mogul who owns the dragstrips at Sonoma, Calif.; Las Vegas; Concord, N.C.; and Bristol, Tenn.
Phase One of the tech innovation center is drawing interest in tenants, Fiorito said: “We have over 100,000 square feet of reserved space for Phase One, so the first 80,000-square-feet will start construction in late 2019 and will be ready for occupancy the first quarter of 2020. But we have over 100,000 square feet reserved right now out of the 200,000 square feet permitted. We anticipate that because we’ve had some credibility issues on whether this will get moving, that the next 100,000-square-feet will be reserved and filled relatively quickly.”
And who is interested in renting this space?
“We have a number of tenants, mostly with the traditional motorsports industry. The low-hanging fruit in this development has always been the individual car owners on both the road course and dragstrip that just want to keep their toys at the track,” Fiorito said. “We also have a number of businesses that are providing trackside service and fabrication and maintenance for race cars both on the road course and drag strip, part salespeople, retail stores that sell helmets, driving suits and high-performance parts. We’re getting ready to announce an MOU with an Australian-based EV dragster company that’s talking about relocating their R and D [research and development] in the United States, so more to come. But we have tenants on both the innovation center side and the traditional motorsports industry lined up.
An “MOU” refers to a “Memorandum of Understanding.” That’s a non-binding agreement between two or more parties that outlines the terms and details of an understanding including each parties' requirements and responsibilities. An MOU often is considered the initial stage in moving toward a formal contract.
Ford and General Motors have been pursuing EV technology, but Fiorito said that isn’t his target tenant: “Generally speaking, the large automotive companies already have test tracks on which they test their technology. We’re seeking to be like the coalition of some of the smaller companies that are looking for cheap research. That’s why we built relationships with Green River Community College and Central Washington University that are willing to craft curriculum around incubator projects that give our tenants access to their state research facilities in exchange for curriculum relevancy and higher placement. And our tenants get the advantage of free research from the state. So that all folds into the ‘project of statewide significance’ designation that gives us the ability to build memoranda of understanding with other state facilities – and incentifies the Department of Commerce to help us attract national and international companies interested in collaborating on innovation technology. Most of the time the big guys – Ford, Chevy, Tesla – all those folks that are kind of on a huge scale, keep that information mostly proprietary, but the smaller guys who need that coalition of other disciplines are the tenants we’re looking for.”
That’s the first phase of what Fiorito called “three pretty major phases.” He said, “This one will kick off the environmental impact statement that needs to be accomplished before we entitle and build more space. So the first 200,000 is permitted under the interim use permit. The next million square feet will be entitled under the master use plan that we’ll submit in the next couple of months to the county and start that review process.”
It all sounds like “legalese” and talk that’s over most people’s heads for extra bases. Fiorito put it more in laymen’s terms.
“What most people don’t realize,” he said, “is that the Pacific Northwest has the highest concentration of software engineers of anywhere in the world, even the Silicon Valley/San Francisco region. We have an influx of software engineers, over 10,000 technology companies (including artificial intelligence) in this state that are looking for outlets for their programmers. Similarly, even offshore companies are looking for that concentration of software engineers. When you pair the aerospace industry with Boeing, the skilled labor that they provide, the concentration of software engineers, the relationship with state research facilities and then a testing facility with a tech campus, we’ve really got all the ingredients to become the hub of automotive innovation industry in the United States. We have offshore companies – from China, South Korea, Japan – literally compiling billions of dollars to relocate their R and D to the United States with some of the incentives for R and D that’s going on right now. So we’re pretty well perched to become a magnet for that entire industry. They’re looking for United States-based R and D, not necessarily U.S. manufacturing but specifically United States based R and D.
Locally rooted giant Boeing anchors the aerospace-industry presence here, and Fiorito said he can envision some of Boeing’s vendors and supplemental, tangential support companies being involved in Pacific Raceways’ dynamic environment.
“We have support from IAM 751, the Boeing machinists union, because they are always in search of non-traditional outlets for their skilled labor,” he said. “The same technology that goes into the aerospace industry applies to the lightweight and strength necessary for the renewable energy-driven-vehicle industry. We’ve always said that race cars are just airplanes upside down. Airplanes create lift; race cars want downforce. But they’re just wings equal and opposite to each other. So the composites, the lightweight metal energy that goes along with machining things for the automotive industry crosses over with the aerospace industry. Do we envision the aerospace industry basing R and D here for itself? No, but we envision the aerospace industry having an outlet for their skilled labor in the automotive industry here. IAM 751 has actually actively lobbied to help us get the legislation necessary to move forward with the innovation center because of its knowledge that we will be an outlet for their skilled labor.
“We’re really excited about the direction the facility is headed,” Fiorito said. “[And that’s] not only in the additional revenue that is being provided by the gravel extraction in the short-term right now, but the long-term benefit of spearheading the racing industry’s transitioning into EV and renewable-energy-driven vehicle technology.”
NOT EXACTLY KRAMER VERSUS KRAMER – This year’s Northwest Nationals has been a special one for Pro Stock racer Deric Kramer. His younger sister, Daria Kramer, has been competing in her second national event. She qualified 26th in the Stock Eliminator class and lost Saturday in the first round when she red-lighted against Bill Bushmaker.
“She's still learning,” Deric Kramer said. “This is the first race car she's been in. She had done some street-car stuff with her V6 Camaro she drove in high school. She raced that a couple of times, but this is the first time she's been in a race car. So she's definitely learning. She's getting there. She just needs a lot more laps, and she'll be doing fine.”
Daria Kramer entered the divisional races at Denver and Topeka, and she competed at the Topeka national event.
“She’s getting there,” her rother said of her progress, “and right now she's learning how to race herself before she starts worrying about racing the cars next to her. You’ve got to learn how your car reacts to the tree and learn how fast it is leaving off the line before you ever worry about racing the finish line or anything like that, but she's getting there. She needs to make a few more laps, and I think she'll be doing great.
“Getting to see her improve and see her go was always fun. So that's the best part. I can just see her make a lap, know that she was two-hundredths slow and then come back the next time saying, ‘Well, I'm going to try and go red this time.’ Well, all right, now you're a hundred red. OK. Now you need to kind of hone in on which way you're going to go. And so that's fun just seeing the progress.”
Seeing his own progress has been equally fun.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I'm just aiming for consistency at this point, just always trying to do the same thing every time I go up there and hopefully it's a good enough to beat the car next to me. Yeah, hopefully more often than not, knock on some wood. It is better. One winner, 15 losers I think is how it goes on Sunday.”
BAD LUCK A GOOD OMEN? – John Force will resume his quest Sunday for that seemingly elusive 150th Funny Car victory in his PEAK Coolant and Motor Oil Chevy Camaro. And he’s hoping that he doesn’t encounter anything goofy like he did at Sonoma, Calif., a week ago. There Force recorded the quickest time during eliminations of the Sonoma Nationals, but in the semifinal round, a mechanical malfunction locked car in reverse as he was about to race Matt Hagan. He had to ditch the run, giving Hagan a solo waltz into the final round.
“I just couldn’t get the thing out of reverse,” Force said. “I tried everything. I neutralized the clutch, shoved it in, let it out. I was almost ready to whack [the throttle] to see if I could get it in gear. I bent the handle off, basically, and it still wasn’t going to go. Things happen, but my guys gave me a great race car. All you can do is regroup and get back in the game.”
Force knows he’s in the game, as he has been all year. He’s third in the standings, behind Robert Hight and Tommy Johnson Jr. He has started three races from the No. 1 position, advanced to the semifinals or beyond in nine of 15 events, and has been quickest on race day at four different races.
Actually, the previous time he was unable to make a run during eliminations was in the first round of the 2010 Keystone Nationals at Reading, Pa. His car broke on the burnout against Dale Creasy Jr. That mishap cost him the points lead with only two races remaining on the schedule, but he rallied to win the next two races, at Las Vegas and Pomona, Calif., and seized the championship.
ANDERSON ON MARCH – Greg Anderson started the season in 11th place, slipped to 13th, took 11th place again and then improved some more by the end of the Las Vegas Four-Wide race. But he had to stew for six weeks that he has stuck in eighth place in the standings. That ground on him while the Pro Stock class sat out for that long gap in the schedule.
“It was a question of who was going to come out of that break looking like they did the best with their off-time,” Anderson said.
Smart money would be on Anderson. He came out and jumped from eighth to fifth at Richmond. Since then, he steadily climbed to second place and takes a 17-7 mark into eliminations Sunday at Pacific Raceways.
“It seems like we came out of that break stronger than we were. We started the season horrible and when we came back from that break, we were contenders again,” Anderson said. “You could tell we were definitely building towards winning again. It’s been a momentum-builder ever since that break, and it’s time to peak right now. I think we’re close to that.”
Anderson, the No. 6 starter, will race No. 11 Fernando Cuadra Jr. in the opening round of runoffs.
MORE GRUELING FOR DELCO – The Western Swing is grinding for anyone, and by the time the series rolls into Seattle, everyone is weary and maybe a little homesick. For New Yorker Kenny Delco, it has been rougher than for many. He had a wild wall-banger at Denver that left him with sore shoulders and a black-and-blue tongue with a bump in it.
Still, Delco said, he never had any thoughts about not coming back right away at Sonoma and now Seattle in consecutive weeks. He said he knew he would stay out West for the complete Swing.
“Yes, we talked about it that night,” he said with his wry smile.
“My shoulders were hurting,” he said, and he said his tongue “got a lump in it. Something happened with it, and I didn’t feel it ’til I got back to the hotel. I said, ‘What is this lump? Oh my God, it’s all black and blue.’ But it went away. I didn’t cut it or anything.”
He said the culprit in the accident was “something with the brakes. When I stepped on them, they were like a rock. And I stepped on them again and nothing. So I hit them harder, and when I hit them harder it just locked them up and turned sideways.”
When he reverted to the Camaro he had started out the year with, he said, “I went into this car after that car and stepped on the brakes and said, ‘Yeah, there was definitely something wrong with those brakes.’ Too late now. All we think about is going fast. We don’t think about stopping.”
Delco explained the “musical cars” he has been through since then.
“After Gainesville or one of the races, Jeggy [Coughlin] got rid of his car, and I got that one because it was pretty fast. I wanted to do something with Val [Smeland] so we switched cars. I just didn’t run fast enough, but we couldn’t figure it out. We started getting good in Denver. I actually wound up No. 7 – until it didn’t stop. It didn’t cooperate. When I first got it, it used to be all over the racetrack, so we fixed that.”
Smeland owns his own car.
Delco said, “He had a car, and I sold him my old car. We do the motors [on Val’s] and stuff. I use Chris McGaha’s motors and he’s using Frank Iaconio’s, which are my motors. We kind of teamed up with Chris last year. We said, ‘You’re a one-car team. We’re a one-car team. We should get together. We could learn from each other.’ We share information, so we’re not two one-car teams not knowing anything. If he finds something and I find something, we share info. That’s how these guys do it that have five or six cars. And we have Alan [Prusiensky], and he uses my motors sometimes. Got to keep the class going.”
Delco, No. 12 in the final Pro Stock qualifying order Saturday, will give up lane choice to No. 5 Deric Kramer.
NHRA SEATTLE – MAGIC DRY NORTHWEST NATIONALS
TOP FUEL HARLEY’S LAYNE UNDERGOES SURGERY, ANDERSON ALONE IN HUNT FOR WESTERN SWING SWEEP, BROWN EYES FOURTH STRAIGHT IN SEATTLE, CRAMPTON – AND EVERYONE IN TOP FUEL – FIGHTS OFF TORRENCES
BIKER LAYNE UNDERGOES SURGERY AFTER CRASH – Top Fuel Harley racer Beau Layne has undergone surgery at a Seattle-area hospital to repair undisclosed damage to his arm after hitting the concrete guard wall and flying from his bike while traveling at nearly 216 mph during his first qualifying run Friday afternoon at Pacific Raceways.
Layne, of Redding, Calif., carried the front wheel for about 1,000 feet on the quarter-mile course near Seattle. When his front tire landed back on the track, the handlebars were turned awkwardly. He rocketed from his left lane across the track in front of fellow rider Tii Tharpe and hit the right guard wall hard. He came off his motorcycle – which had just clocked a 6.408-second elapsed time at 215.86 mph when he crossed the finish line – and tumbled down the track. He stood up right away on his own power as Tharpe raced down to check on him.
His motorcycle, which had the front end severed, darted on through the shutdown area and broke through both catch nets.
“We’re qualified but more than that, we are grateful that Beau is up on his own two feet and being treated by medical staff,” Tharpe posted on Facebook immediately following the accident.
Layne’s wife, Johanna, later Friday said her husband wanted to thank Tharpe publicly for not hitting him as he cut in front of Tharpe on the racetrack.
The entire Top Fuel Harley contingent gathered in the pits as photojournalist Sandra Alberti made a video of them sending speedy-recovery wishes to Layne.
This race is the ninth of 10 Top Fuel Harley class appearances on the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule this season. The category will race again at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis this Labor Day weekend.
ANDERSON HAS BROOM READY – With Billy Torrence winning at Sonoma and erasing his son Steve’s chance and Robert Hight taking away Tommy Johnson’s opportunity last Sunday, Pro Stock’s Greg Anderson is the lone racer in position to sweep the Western Swing.
If Anderson can win the Magic Dry Organic Absorbent Northwest Nationals this weekend at Pacific Raceways, he will become the only driver to do so twice and the first in 10 years to do it at all.
Anderson is just five victories away from tying mentor Warren Johnson’s class-best total of 97 (which is second among all NHRA drag racers only to Funny Car’s John Force and his 149 triumphs). And he’s the first and only Pro Stock driver to complete the hat trick at Denver, Sonoma, and Seattle. The feat is especially gratifying because it means mastering three completely different venues in consecutive weeks that course more than 5,500 miles. In Anderson’s case, that distance is even greater, for he started the trek on the East Coast, in the suburbs of Charlotte, N.C.
Denver’s Bandimere Speedway, with its thin air and elevation of more than 5,700 feet, is by far the toughest track to solve. Anderson said, “You can’t breathe. The cars can’t breathe. The birds can’t hardly even fly. The cars just don’t run well. You’ve got to change everything about the way you run your race car.” That’s what racers encounter after most leave their home bases at Brownsburg, Ind., the hauler driver brings the car across 1,080-plus miles of highway.
The next two events of the stretch – at Sonoma, Calif., and Seattle – offer more oxygen-rich air. Sonoma Raceway, 1,230 miles west of Denver but just a spit away from the Pacific Ocean, sits about 15 feet – some sources say as much as 275 feet – above sea level and usually offer mineshaft conditions. Seven hundred eighty-eight miles away, Seattle’s elevation is about 150 feet above sea level, and it’s ringed with fir trees that give ample oxygen for bigger horsepower. Del Worsham once called Pacific Raceways “a spa for race cars.” But for years, the Seattle facility was notorious for its bumps, dips, and assorted quirks that were as tricky as the tune-up at Denver.
Top Fuel’s Antron Brown was the last driver to sweep the Western Swing, in 2009.
He said: “To win all three of those races is just a testament to how great your team is. You have to have a serious team, not just mentally but physically. You have to have all the strength that you need to get it done mentally, emotionally, and physically. And to say that you're one of the people that you can stand back and look at it and you know you're part of history that's going to last forever – because you just won three back-to-back races on the toughest stretch on our tour – it is just an incredible feat.”
Anderson knows. He pulled it off in 2004, when he won the second of his four Pro Stock championships and along the way set the Pro Stock standard for most victories in a season at 15, advanced to a sport-record 19 final rounds, qualified No. 1 on 16 occasions, and set the mark for biggest margin of championship victory in any category (742 points over Jason Line). Today Anderson owns the sport’s record for longest qualifying streak among active drivers at 373 races (since the 2002 Finals at Pomona).
“I can remember the feeling of how cool it was like it was yesterday,” Anderson said. “You realize after years of trying to do it again just how difficult it is. It’s a tough deal. To do it twice, it would be pretty awesome. But I’m getting ahead of myself, because it’s so dang hard to win these things anymore. Seattle is a cool place, but it’s definitely a tough place to win.
“I think it’s exciting, and I don’t look at it as pressure. I’m definitely going to be excited to give it go, give it a try, and it seems like our team is doing a good job,” he said. “My car is a lot better, and we’re finding ways to win we weren’t finding earlier in the year. We’ve definitely gotten better as a race team throughout the summer months, without a doubt.
"Winning the last two weeks proves to me that I can still do this. It's so much fun, and I've been reminded these last two weeks why I do it. It's just fantastic, and I'm [at] Seattle with a smile on my face. I'm eager to race [here] and see if the cards fall the right way again. I had a lot of luck in Sonoma. We didn't make any big mistakes. And I found my way to the winners circle. Hopefully, we can do that again this week for the sweep."
Joe Amato was the first of five Top Fuel racers to accomplish a sweep of the Western Swing. He did it in 1991. Fellow dragster drivers Cory McClenathan (1997), Larry Dixon (2003), and Tony Schumacher (2008) did so before Brown. John Force was the first and only Funny Car driver to do it, in 1994 – 15 years ago.
Although the grueling nature of the Western Swing has not varied through the years, its order has changed. The Western Swing began with its current Denver-Sonoma-Seattle order, but from 1999-2009 the schedule called for Denver to Seattle to Sonoma. In 2010, racers went from Seattle to Sonoma to Denver. But the order reverted to the current one in 2011.
The Mello Yello Series schedule already has run four races in as many weekends during June: Chicago (Joliet, Ill.); Topeka; Bristol, Tenn.; and Norwalk, Ohio. But a team headquartered in Brownsburg, for example, makes a four-race loop of “only” 2,364 miles, compared to the Western Swing’s 5,303.
The 2020 schedule looks to be even more taxing. It calls for three geographically scattered races in a row (Topeka, Bristol, Norwalk), then after just weekend off, the series launches into a four-straight Western Swing that starts in Chicago. After the Seattle event – again with just one idle week to regroup – action will resume at Brainerd, Minn. It courses around the Great Lakes to Epping, N.H., before Countdown fields are set at Indianapolis. So that could be worse – unless these drivers love a stiff challenge.
COUGHLIN IMPROVES ON NO. 1 NUMBERS – Pro Stock’s Jeg Coughlin joined Mike Salinas (Top Fuel) and Bob Tasca III (Funny Car) Friday in grabbing provisional No. 1 qualifying positions at Pacific Raceways.
“How much better can you feel, honestly, other than hoisting the Wally on Sunday night? And that’s certainly our goal,” Coughlin said.
He said the track conditions were excellent with cloud cover following a cooling morning/early-afternoon rain.
“I felt like we left a tick on the table in Q1 and came back and tried to sweep that up for that [second] run. The rack’s really killer right now, just a testament to the Elite Motorsports team,” Coughlin said.
Leah Pritchett, in the Sparkling Ice Dragster, took the early Top Fuel lead Friday with a 3.725-second E.T. at 323.58 mph. And in Funny Car, John Force was the tentative No. 1 racer after the first of four sessions.
Pro-class qualifying continues Saturday at 1:30 and 4:30 p.m. Eliminations will begin Sunday at 11 a.m.
Announcer Alan Reinhart and Top Fuel racer Scott Palmer will conduct Nitro School at 11:30 a.m.
GIVING ‘EM WHAT-FOUR – Antron Brown is chasing history this weekend at Pacific Raceways.
The Matco Tools/Toyota Dragster driver for Don Schumacher Racing has won the past three Northwest Nationals. If he adds the 2019 Top Fuel trophy this weekend to the ones he earned in 2016, 2017, and 2018, he’ll become only the second Top Fuel racer to claim four consecutive victories at a single venue twice.
Brown did it at Madison, Ill., from 2012 through 2015, at what was then called Gateway Motorsports Park (and is known today as World Wide Technology Raceway). When he accomplished that feat, he became just the third to win four straight at the same dragstrip.
Tony Schumacher has done it twice: at the U.S. Nationals (2006, 2007, 2008, 2009) and at the Finals at Pomona, Calif. (2004, 2005, 2006, 2007). Scott Kalitta was first to do it, at Topeka from 1994-1997.
Winning here is no cinch, Brown will tell you: “The track is always tricky. You can make good power and you can run some really good times here. The key is you have to be able to adapt to the different conditions and then make the conditions throughout the day. It’s not a day-to-day thing in Seattle. It’s an hour-to-hour thing.”
He said this is about the time of year his Mark Oswald-, Brad Mason-led team starts cranking up.
“We just go to Seattle with our heads down, and it’s right around the time of the year where our team starts to hit its stride. It’s a time of year where it’s easy for a team to get beat down with so many races and so much travel. I think our guys are seasoned for it and find that extra gear to get to that next level. They just don’t know when to quit,” Brown said.
Racing a third race in six weeks might make any team want to quit, at last for a little break. But Brown said, “It really shows you what your team is made of. That’s when you are worn out and your team is beat up and you always seem to find that extra gear. I think we’re really going to need it this year. Everyone is so competitive, and there are a lot of teams that are close together in the points. We need to kick it into overdrive. I think our Matco Tools / Toyota guys are growing each and every race. And Seattle just seems to be that breaking point where we break out and start doing what we need to do.”
He shared one special memory from the Pacific Northwest.
“It seems like every year we go to Seattle we do well, but the one that sticks out the most was 2009 – our first win here. It was the second race of the Western Swing that year. We won that race, and then we went out and swept the Swing. It’s always just a special memory. The other thing is simply racing out here. So many good memories . . . and we have a lot of great people from that area that have made our sport what it is today.”
If he could get that fourth triumph in a row here, Brown, of course, would be the first Top Fuel racer and the first in any class to do it at Pacific Raceways.
Brown is the Top Fuel victories leader among active drivers with 50 – the last of which came here a year ago.
MILLICAN PLUGS B.R.A.K.E.S. – To honor his close friend Doug Herbert and show his continued support for his teen defensive-driving program, Clay Millican is carrying the B.R.A.K.E.S. logo on his Denso/Parts Plus Dragster.
For the Drummonds, Tenn., native, it’s a way to help spread the word about its importance and impact on saving teen lives.
“What Doug and his team have done over the past 11 years is nothing short of incredible,” Millican said. “Since the earliest stages, it’s been especially important for me to show my support, through hosting schools in Memphis to fundraising and public-service announcements. It’s been my pleasure and my honor to help B.R.A.K.E.S. in every possible way.”
DENSO, a longtime Millican sponsor, also sponsors B.R.A.K.E.S. as part of its efforts to reduce auto accidents and increase road safety.
Herbert established the 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization following the 2008 loss of his two sons in a car crash. B.R.A.K.E.S. provides free lifesaving defensive-driver training in weekend sessions across the country. It addresses the leading cause of death among teens – car crashes – and presents qualified instructors who expose the students to various scenarios and courses in the single-day program. The mission for Herbert – and those who help the cause – is to arm the teens with life-saving practices to prevent other parents from facing the heartbreak of losing a child as Herbert did.
“We continue to be amazed and deeply appreciative of all that Clay and his team have done to show their dedication to our program,” Herbert said. “Clay personifies what it truly means to be a superstar, going well beyond his dominance on the drag strip. Since Day One, his passion for our program has been invaluable in our growth both in Memphis as well as on a national scale. The dragstrip in Seattle is one of the locations that we have held our classes and we are looking forward to the next time we are able to bring our lifesaving program back to the Northwest.”
B.R.A.K.E.S. is hoping to have classes at Seattle or Portland, Ore., in 2020. Its West Coast fleet of cars is being used throughout the Midwest for the new few months, while the East Coast fleet is mostly in the Carolinas. Toward the end of the year, B.R.A.K.E.S. is expected back at Pomona, Calif., as well as San Marcos (near San Diego) and Phoenix.
In the meantime, Millican is trying to convert a final-round appearance to his third NHRA victory. He has advanced to two consecutive finals, at Denver and Sonoma.
“The final round has been a bit of an Achilles heel for our team this season,” Millican, the No. 3-ranked Top Fuel driver, said. “We’ve had five final-round appearances and don’t have a Wally. But we remain confident that the wins will come very soon.” And it would come none too soon, as this race, the Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd, Minn., and the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis are all the remain to decide the class’10 title-eligible drivers. The second-place through fifth-place drivers are separated by only 27 points.
TORRENCE AGAIN?! – Steve Torrence and his dad Billy Torrence are winners of a combined 10 races among the first 15. And Kalitta Motorsports Top Fuel driver Richie Crampton has lost to either father or son in eliminations at six of the past seven events. Since winning the Gatornationals in March, Crampton hasn’t lasted more than two rounds on race day.
“We have let a few races slip away from us on the Western Swing. We are getting some tough match-ups on race day. “The past two races we just have run into one of the toughest drivers and teams out here,” said Crampton. “Steve Torrence and his Capco team have been running amazing and we just keep getting matched up with them early. You have to beat whoever is in the other lane, and we have just had some tough draws.”
Despite that, he’s still in the playoff mix at No. 8, only 30 points out of seventh place.
I want to get those things out of the way before we get to the U.S. Nationals and into the Countdown,” Crampton, driver of the DHL/Toyota Dragster, said. “This weekend, this DHL team is going to focus on getting a good start on Friday and taking that momentum through the whole race. We haven’t put three great days together since the Gatornationals, and I know we can do that again.”
Crampton, who led the field at Seattle in 2015, needs just one elimination round-win to hit 100.
“There is no doubt that to be the best you have to beat the best,” he said. “Every race against any opponent you learn something. I feel like even when we don’t get the win light, we are making progress, because we are getting data for the tune-up or I am getting more experience as a driver. You can’t get down out here, because the races come at you too quickly. I put Sonoma behind me and right now all I am thinking about is the first qualifying session [here].”
KALITTA A VICTORY WAITING TO HAPPEN? – Doug Kalitta drove his Matco Tools Dragster to four runner-up finishes at Seattle before besting Antron Brown here in the 2014 final round.
“We have run well for a lot of years in Seattle,” Kalitta said, remembering his final-round appearances 1999, 2000, and 2003, and his top-qualifying spot in 2010. “I am looking forward to getting this Mac Tools Top Fuel dragster back on the track. We make some positive strides in Sonoma, and I think we can do even better in Seattle. Getting the win in 2014 over Antron Brown was big. I would like to get another win here this weekend and wrap up the Western Swing on a high note.”
But he has one concern: “That track can be really quick, or it can be really tricky.”
Kalitta, in fifth place, is seeking his 46th victory and first since the season-opening Winternationals. “It has been a while since we were in the winners circle, and you definitely miss it,” he said. “We are right there, and we just need to get over the hump. This class is so tough you can’t afford to make even the smallest mistake. The thing that gives me a lot of confidence is how good this Mac Tools team is from top to bottom. Every guy is busting his tail to make this dragster run. I know we will start seeing more success soon.”
“I think we are in a good position in the points, but you can always do better,” Kalitta said. “We would love to be in that No. 2 spot after the U.S. Nationals, and that is definitely doable. The first step is to get some round-wins and maybe a win here in Seattle. That is going to be our first goal.”
When Kalitta lines up for race day Sunday, and he is expected to do so because the field of 16 has only 15 entrants, he will become the Top Fuel racer with the most starts, breaking a tie with Tony Schumacher. At this point, both have competed at 504 events.
YOU WANT FRIES WITH THAT? – It’s an incidental blessing that Pacific Raceways isn’t surrounded immediately by fast-food restaurants.
Funny Car contender Tommy Johnson Jr. doesn’t care particularly for chit-chat on the radio once he’s in the car, unless he experiences something out of the ordinary and he needs to communicate that with his crew.
“I don’t really want somebody talking to me a bunch. I don’t need that distraction,” he said.
Aaah, but he gets it anyway on occasion.
“Sometimes we get interference,” Johnson, driver of the Make-A-Wish Dodge Charger for Don Schumacher Racing said. “I’ve had Burger King drive-through come in on the radio before. It’s actually happened. I’ve had some weird stuff on my radio before. At Chicago – for some reason at Chicago – I hear somebody when I go through the finish line. I’m not sure who it is. But every year at Chicago, I know there’s going to be somebody talking on my radio at the finish line.”
That brings back memories from the 1970s of the Steve Miller Band’s song “Living In The USA.” It starts with the sound of a drag-racing engine revving up and ends with a clip of a track announcer exclaiming, “He moves way ahead of the Howard Cams Special, and . . . he TAKES IT! The winner. . . Lefty Mudersbach. . . on the street side." And right before the drag-racing audio, the lyrics blare, “Somebody give me a cheeseburger!”
Allen (Lefty) Mudersbach was co-owner – with Chet Herbert, Doug Herbert’s father – and driver of the Herbert Cam Special, a twin-engine inline AA/GD that was a frequent winner at Southern California’s Lions Drag Strip in the early 1960s.
FORCE & SEATTLE: PECUALIAR PALS – Results at Pacific Raceways has been a mixed bag for John Force. He won here for the first time in 1991, then again in 1993, 1994, 1996, 2000, 2003, 2004, and, most recently, 2014. His 2000 victory was memorable, because he defeated all three Pedregon brothers – Cruz, Tony, and Frankie – on the way to the winners circle. It’s also where he completed his sweep of the Western Swing 15 years ago, in 1994.
However, it also is the track where he watched daughter Ashley Force Hood crash in 2007, saw daughter Courtney crash in 2016, and he failed to qualify in 2008.
His weird experiences at Seattle go way back, though.
Years ago, when Force was on his way to a porta-potty (where, another year, fans pried the door open and snapped photos of him inside), an autograph-seeker stopped him. Force, his heart as full as his bladder, obliged. It figured – he was in a hurry, and he couldn’t remove the cap from the pen the man provided. The gathering crowd pointed and laughed as Force pulled on the cap in vain. “Huh-huh-huh,” the fan sputtered, “I glued the cap on. Gotcha.” Force got that “Why, I oughta–” look on his face like Moe from The Three Stooges but then softened a bit when the prankster declared, “I’m the biggest John Force fan in the world!” Recounting the incident, Force said, “Good thing he was. If he had said he was an Al Hofmann fan, I might have decked him.”
During another visit, a crazy-talking, overserved, barefooted woman showed up at Force’s pit, said her boyfriend threw her shoes over the back of the grandstand, and announced she intended to go home with Force. “Oh, no, you’re not,” Force told her. But she jumped in his passenger car. He finally managed to ditch her and bolt from the track.
He also said he remembered when streaking was popular that “whole grandstands” of fans would pour onto the track and run down the lanes naked. “What do you people have in your water?” he asked.
Maybe his most memorable journey to Seattle came in 1992, when Cruz Pedregon was challenging him and threatening his bid for a third straight Funny Car championship. On the drive up from Southern California with wife Laurie and their three daughters, Force was annoying his family with incessant number-crunching, trying to strategize all the scenarios in the title chase. He stopped to buy his children McDonald's Happy Meals. He had no idea the treat inside the box was a miniature Cruz Pedregon Funny Car – Pedregon’s sponsor was McDonald’s – until he heard the girls arguing over it.
"I just seized up," Force recalls. "I said give it, GIVE IT to me! Don't you know he's ruining my life?!"
He snatched the plastic Pedregon, screeched the car to a halt on the roadside, and scrambled out of the car. There beside the family sedan, he slammed the toy to the ground and stomped on it. Like a battle veteran snapping-to from a flashback, Force stared at the granulated Pedregon mixed with roadside gravel, then at his chagrined wife and stupefied children.
"I felt bad," he says. "I was trying to be with the kids, but I was in Vietnam in my head. It was war. I fought 20 years to get here. It ain't like I was a billionaire who walked in and said, `I'm Howard Hughes. I want to race.' I had nothin' - flat nothin'. Now it's slippin' away to some kid drivin' a hamburger stand. I'll never be champ again. You want to know if there's cheese on your Egg McMuffin. Who cares? I'm dying!"
The girls told him, "You'll be a champ again, Daddy. If you aren't, you'll have more time at home."
He moaned, “No. You don't understand. If they take away my championship, I lose my life.”
He lost that title to Cruz Pedregon but won the next 10 and four more after that for a total of 16. And at 70 years old, he’s still fighting. And again this week, he’s battling for his record-extending 150th victory and first of this season. Since he won his first race in 1987, Force has won at least one event every year except 2009.
His stories are sidesplitting, and his humor is self-depricating. But Force is nobody’s fool.
Bob Tasca said when he beat Force in the final this June at Bristol, Tenn., “I don’t think anyone out here can live to be 1,000 and do what that man has done in a race car. So you’d better pay attention when you run the champ.”
Force has more triumphs than Tony Schumacher, with 84 victories, and Larry Dixon, with 62 – the two most successful drivers in Top Fuel, the sport’s headliner class – combined. Inactive Warren Johnson leads the Pro Stock victories list at 97. So Johnson trails Force by 52 – the total number of victories by retired five-time Top Fuel champion Joe Amato, who’s No. 3 on the dragster list.
The all-time leader in Pro Stock Motorcycle victories is Andrew Hines with 55. He’s the key player at bike icon Vance & Hines, which has racked up 130 victories among him, Eddie Krawiec, and older brother Matt Hines. That means Force has won 19 more races than Pro Stock Motorcycle’s elite organization has won altogether.
If the Peak Chevrolet Camaro owner-driver can just score at least one more, he’ll hit the 150 plateau and keep his streak alive. But he isn’t worried. He said, “I have a great race car and a great team – 150 is going to happen. I just have to keep doing my job and going rounds.” So far he has eight semifinal and one runner-up finish and is third in the standings. And this is race No. 777 for Force, if anyone believes in luck.
Things went his way in the opening qualifying session Friday. He was quickest and fastest at 3.891 seconds and 328.86 mph. He’s fourth overnight.
FIFTY IS NIFTY FOR HIGHT – So what if John Force is one shy of exactly 100 more victories than Robert Hight? Hight still is proud of his No. 50 he earned Sunday at his hometown racetrack at Sonoma, Calif.
“It’s a milestone. I mean, if you look at the guys that have raced Funny Car, there are a lot of big names: Kenny Bernstein, Don Prudhomme, the guys that when I was a kid, I watched on T.V. . . . and they don’t have 50 wins in a Funny Car. That’s amazing. It’s hard to believe,” the driver of the Auto Club of Southern California Camaro said.
Hight has led the standings all season. He has won five times in seven final rounds, reached three other semifinals, and led the field eight times so far. Hight is 10 eliminations round-wins from reaching 500. And he said he’s comfortable with his history at Seattle.
“I went to the finals here in my rookie season. We always seem to do well in qualifying, and I think I’ve only had a handful of early Sunday exits,” he said. “Right now, with this Auto Club Chevy and the way this team is working hard, we are right where we want to be. The Countdown isn’t far away, so now isn’t the time to let up. It’s the time to really get ourselves together to make a run for another championship. I’m excited to see how we close out this Western Swing.”
Hight and Tommy Johnson Jr. are the only two Funny Car racers so far who already have qualified for the Countdown. In Top Fuel, Steve Torrence is the lone Countdown qualifier; same for Bo Butner in Pro Stock.
CAPPS LIKES SEATTLE – Ron Capps has been to Seattle many times and has won at Pacific Raceways in both the Top Fuel and Funny Car classes. (Both he and Don Schumacher Racing colleague Tommy Johnson Jr. earned their first pro victories here at Seattle, both in Top Fuel – Johnson in 1993, Capps in 1995.) But Thursday night, Capps got a new perspective on one of his old haunts. He took a cruise through Lake Washington and Puget Sound “with a few hundred Washington NAPA friends” after a visit on the way up I-5 at Portland “with the NAPA Oregonians.”
And the driver of the NAPA Dodge Charger arrived as the 2018 event champion. He has won 63 races, but No. 60 came here last August.
“It’s disappointing not winning at Denver and Sonoma, but we’re returning to Seattle as the defending event champions. I’ve been going to Seattle for a long time, dating back to when I was a crew member with Blaine and Alan Johnson and Jim Rizzoli on a Top Alcohol Dragster. My first professional win ever was at Seattle in 1995, when I was in Top Fuel, and it holds so many great memories,” Capps said.
“Pacific Raceways is a fun track. It’s a throwback and sees very competitive racing. We’re hoping to finish strong on the Western Swing with a win at Seattle.”
He said when he unloaded the car from the trailer Friday that he was going to “go for the pole.”
Capps is fifth in the standings.
LANGDON MAKING STRIDES – Shawn Langdon, who won at the Charlotte Four-Wide race and was runner-up at Epping, N.H., in the Global Electronic Technology Toyota Camry Funny Car, said his strategy for the Countdown is simple.
“You are starting to see people ask more about the points,” he said, “but my attitude is if you are going rounds you will be OK. I am glad we are qualifying so well, because that gives you confidence going into race day. I am really just working on staying focused and doing my job.”
In the past five races, Langdon has qualified in the top half of the field four times – and has made it out of the first round. In that stretch he was No. 2 qualifier twice and reached the finals once.
“I really think we turned a corner after Norwalk, We stayed and tested and we figured some things out,” Langdon said as he approaches his 40th start in a Funny Car. “Del and Nicky [crew chiefs Worsham and Boninfante] know this car really well, and they have just been working on little things to make us quicker and more consistent. We’re still in the learning stages with some of the things we’ve changed the last couple months. Our qualifying in Sonoma showed a lot of potential the team has.
“The main motivating factor right now is we know we can compete. I feel like we’re in a good position now and we want to keep maintaining what we’ve been doing. The car has just been making good runs lately. We’ve had a great car, and our primary focus every time we pull in is to give 100 percent and do the best job we can,” he said.
“We’ve been qualifying a lot better, and the quality of runs we’ve had, it’s been a big change the last couple races. It’s definitely important with the Countdown to the Championship coming up quick. This is a crucial time of the year to be fine-tuning your car, and every point matters,” Langdon said. Hopefully we can continue to put good runs together.”
He said, “This is when it starts to get exciting.”
Langdon was runner-up here twice in Top Fuel (2012, 2015). That first final at Pacific Raceways came against a driver who today is his Kalitta Motorsports teammate, J.R. Todd, the reigning class champion. “JR and I raced in the final at Seattle a few years ago,” Langdon said. “I would love to get another shot at him in our Toyota Camrys this year. He has been a big help to me as I am learning how to drive Funny Car. We talk after just about every run. He is a great teammate and champion, for sure.”
As for Seattle, he said, “I always have good feelings heading back [here]. We’ve got a great group of guys, and I’ve got a great team behind me. They work their butts off to put together a great car and it’s just a self-motivating group. We’ve shown what the car is capable off and I think we’re all excited heading [into] Seattle. The Western Swing is a tough three races. If you can’t win all three, I definitely think you want to win or do well at Seattle. You can carry some momentum into the last two races of the regular season. You want to go rounds so you have a point cushion heading into the U.S. Nationals.”
Langdon is ranked ninth in the standings, with a comfortable 168-point lead over 11-th place Cruz Pedregon.
WANTS A WALLY – For Jack Beckman, at least for right now, it’s all about the trophy, baby!
“At this point, I think everyone on the Infinite Hero team would agree our single-minded goal is just to get a trophy. Winning requires a series of things – a good game plan, and a good execution. I have to drive well, Guido and John [crew chiefs Dean Antonelli and John Medlen] have to tune well, the crew has to service the car well, and then that intangible . . . sometimes you just have to have a bit of racing luck. I think we’ve been good, and we’ve been ready to win a race. But we just haven’t had much racing luck lately. You can never count on that,” he said, “so we’re just going to go back to proper execution, and the chips are going to fall where they may. But I hope we end up with the trophy in Seattle.”
Beckman did here in 2007. In 2011, he was runner-up. And on two other occasions (2013, 2015), he has the No. 1 qualifier. A victory here would be No. 29 overall for the driver of the Infinite Hero Dodge Charger for Don Schumacher Racing.
Fourth in the Funny Car standings, Beckman has lived up to his “Fast Jack” nickname here. He has been the track speed record-holder at 334.15 mph since 2016. Del Worsham, Shawn Langdon’s crew chief, set the track elapsed-time mark that same year at 3.832 seconds.
PRO STOCK WILL SEE NEW WINNER – The Pro Stock class will not have a repeat champion at Pacific Raceways. Tanner Gray was last year’s winner, and he has left drag racing to try his hand – or foot – at NASCAR K&N Series East competition and on a part-time basis in the ARCA Menards Series. (After seven races, he has one victory and four top-five finishes and is ranked fourth in the standings in K&N East competition. In seven ARCA races, he has four top-10 efforts.)
McGAHA OWNS RECORDS – Chris McGaha set both ends of the track record here at Pacific Raceways in August 2015, at 6.488 second and 213.40 mph. The late Bob Glidden had the most Pro Stock victories here, with six, and Warren Johnson followed with four at Seattle. Those records still stand, as do all pro marks following Friday’s action.
NO MORE SURPRISES, THANKS – Pro Stock’s Jeg Coughlin Jr. is hoping he doesn’t get any race-day surprises this weekend, like he did last Sunday at Sonoma, Calif.
Coughlin, the 2002 Seattle winner, said he’s “really pleased with the way the JEGS.com Elite Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro has been running. And if not for a rare issue with the battery we experienced Sunday in Sonoma, we'd be in even better shape than we are now. It was a fluky deal where we went up for Round 2, fully expecting to post another super-competitive pass, and the battery failed on us. I don't recall too many times in my career when that's happened. It's actually tough to predict, especially when it worked just fine in the opening session, but that's drag racing. All it did is make us more anxious to gain back the little bit of ground we lost this past weekend."
Last year at Pacific Raceways, he recorded the best pass of the weekend – 6.501 seconds at 212.16 mph – to earn him the No. 1 qualifying position.
"The Pacific Northwest is such a beautiful part of the country and we always enjoy racing in Seattle and enjoying the city for a few days," the Phoenix winner said. He’s accompanied by brother Mike, who leads the Top Dragster standings in Division 3 and is ranked sixth nationally. "Having Mike along this year will make those dinners at our favorite seafood places around town even more special than it already is for us."
It was special in the first qualifying run Friday. Coughlin led the field with a 6.541-second pass at 210.50 mph. Then posted a quicker and slightly faster 6.539, 210.57 in the evening session.