BILLY TORRENCE HELPS SON’S TOP FUEL TITLE QUEST WITH MAPLE GROVE VICTORY - Reminded that he serves a valuable purpose in helping son Steve Torrence stay in command as he strives for a fourth consecutive NHRA Top Fuel championship, Mopar Express Lane Nationals winner Billy Torrence said Sunday, tongue in cheek, “I don’t care too much for the Loser Appreciation program, but you know, we’ll take it.” 

Truth is, he was elated to keep final-round opponent Justin Ashley from getting any closer to Steve Torrence in the standings and did some reminding of his own: “Those Capco Boys will outrun you when it comes time.” 

The Capco Contractors founder from Kilgore, Texas, proved that against Ashley in the final, knocking him off with a 3.720-second elapsed time at 326.08 mph on the 1,000-foot Maple Grove Raceway course near Reading, Pa. Ashley, of Plainview, N.Y., challenged with a 3.784, 313.22 in the Smart Sanitizer Dragster powered by Strutmasters.com. 

Winning at this kickoff of the Camping World Drag Racing Series’ 2021 Countdown to the Championship definitely was all fun and games for Billy Torrence, the No. 8-ranked driver. 

“I love to race,” he said. “I get out and race my Super Comp car as often as I can. Just racing is fun. I think Steve and, we’d foot-race if that’s all we had. We’d race wheelbarrows, motorcycles, bicycles, you name it. We’re going to get out and race. 

“But I get out here, and these guys [his Jason McCulloch-led crew] just make me look good. I try to do the best I can. There are some people who are race-car drivers, and I can just drive a race car. That’s basically it. I had a good car. I'm certainly the weak link in my car and the Capco Boys and the Good Lord was riding with me. Made me look good in the end. I'm not near the driver to get around,” Torrence said. “But I still have a good time. And like Steve, I’m going to take all the wins I can get.” 

By .0228 of a second, Billy Torrence preserved the points lead for his son, who fell to Ashley in a semifinal pedal-job attempt but benefited, too, from second-place Brittany Force’s semifinal-round loss. And the winner had a plan for his son to repay him for the favor. 

“I’ll be at work in the morning at 5 o’clock. Steve had better not be far behind me,” Dad said. 

Actually, Billy Torrence worked several hours Friday in Texas before flying here in the afternoon and nailing down the provisional No. 5 spot in the lineup. And after Sunday’s victory – his second of the season and eighth overall – he expressed his passion for drag racing and put it in perspective. 

“We could be running up and down one of them pipeline right-of-ways, welding piping. Just to get out here and hang out with everybody and race those cars, we’re going to be automatic having fun,” he said.” 

And Monday at lunchtime they’ll be driving over to Tyler, Texas, to gather at El Charro, their favorite Mexican restaurant they visit following every family victory. So not much has changed. 

Despite Brittany Force’s superb performance (No. 1 qualifier, setting low elapsed time of the season for the Top Fuel class at 3.655 seconds, clocking a track-record speed of 335.57 mph), Steve Torrence still leads the standings. Despite Justin Ashley buzzing through a stout line-up that included perennial powerhouses Doug Kalitta and Clay Millican and giving Billy Torrence a gritty run for his money, Steve Torrence still leads the standings and Ashley still is seeking his first victory of the year and second overall. And despite Josh Hart, Shawn Langdon, and Force engaging Billy Torrence in close matches throughout the day at Maple Grove, the 63-year-old head ‘Capco Boy” demonstrated once again that he can be a significant force in the series even though he was making just his 10th appearance in 14 races. 

Top Fuel racer T.J. Zizzo coined the term “super part-timer,” and Billy Torrence certainly is one of them. He won the New England Nationals June 13 at Epping, N.H. and is perfect in two finals this season. After Sunday’s triumph, Billy Torrence is third in the standings as the series heads down South for this next weekend’s DeWalt Nationals at zMAX Dragway at Concord, N.C.   

It’s conceivable he could win this championship, but, perhaps surprisingly, that’s not at all what he’s trying to do. He brought up the phrase “Loser Participation Program,” and this time he wasn’t kidding – maybe he wasn’t the first time, either. Like his more vocal son, he clearly doesn’t approve of the sentiment behind the Countdown, which negates all the advantage a driver goes out and earns – earns – during the regular season. 

“I'm not an advocate of the loser participation program. I think I've started out about 900 points behind. That's kind of why I feel better. If I were to actually win the trophy, I'd give it away,” Torrence said. Susan Wade

FILLING IN FOR HAGAN, TOMMY JOHNSON JR. WINS MAPLE GROVE - The substitute driver looked like the savvy veteran that he is.

Tommy Johnson Jr., filling in for Matt Hagan who is recovering from COVID-19, powered the Don Schumacher Racing nitro Funny Car to the title at the Mopar Express Lane NHRA Nationals presented by Pennzoil Sunday in Reading, Pa.

“Q1, I thought we had a pretty good chance of winning this race,” Johnson Jr., said. “It is hard to sit out that long, and these cars accelerate so fast. To keep up and keep ahead of the car you can drive them, but to be able to drive them good you have to be ahead of the car and each run it just got more comfortable, more comfortable, and more comfortable and as the day went on, I kept getting more relaxed and more relaxed. By the final round, there’s nothing to it. It was pretty cool. I was astonished.

“When I threw the chutes and saw the win light come on, I just burst out laughing because I couldn’t believe it happened. I thought 'you have to be kidding me. I have come a long way in a week.'” 

Johnson Jr. clocked a 3.926-second elapsed time at 330.23 mph to oust legendary competitor John Force, who recorded a 3.946-second run at 328.54 mph.

This was the second week in a row Johnson Jr. filled in for reigning world champion Hagan. He jumped in the seat for Q1 at the U.S. Nationals, Sept. 3 in Indianapolis, but failed to make a run when there was a part failure. The remainder of qualifying for the U.S. Nationals was rained out Sept. 4, thus Johnson didn’t make the 16-car field.

It was a different story in Maple Grove. Johnson qualified fourth at 3.895 seconds and then beat Jim Campbell, Ron Capps, J.R. Todd, and Force.

“I know John’s game, I knew what he was going to do, and I know he likes to roll it way in on the final, he will stick it way in there,” Johnson Jr. said. “I’m surprised the top bulb didn’t go out as slow as his 60-foot was. I thought, OK, I’m going to go in here and stick it way in deep because if you’re going to beat him you have to play the game with him. Fortunately, it was just enough to get the win. I knew it was close. He may be old, but he’s pretty good still. To race Force in the final, that just made it even more special. He’s the best the class ever had.”

The points Johnson accumulated during the race weekend will be awarded to Hagan.

Johnson Jr., who finished second in the points standings a year ago, won his 23rd NHRA career national event. Johnson Jr. drove a nitro Funny Car for DSR from 2014-20 but lost his ride at the end of the 2020 season when his team lost its financial backing.

“This is a really good car and a really good team,” Johnson Jr. said. “It makes it easier for a driver to jump in that thing, and I had known the guys from the shop. It was about as smooth of a transition possible to make this thing happen. This race will mean a ton to me later on.”

Johnson Jr.’s first career NHRA national event win in the nitro Funny Car ranks came in 1999 when he beat Ron Capps in the finals.

“This has always been a special track for me,” Johnson Jr. said. “To come here and win your first Funny Car race I didn’t want it to be the last one. I wanted a shot at it again. It was very cool. I kept thinking of my dad all day. He and I had our Top Fuel team and raced together for three years. A lot of memories and I talked about them with my wife all weekend. I told how my dad yelled at me for scratching the truck driving in here with all the trees.

“The sport of drag racing is my whole life. All my memories are from drag racing. To be able to come out here today and win this thing for these guys. They worked really hard to make all this happen and make adjustments and working with a new guy and learning their techniques. (Crew chief) Dickie Venables told me 'you drive the race how you drive, and we will tune it how we tune it, and we will come out OK'. I’m still astonished” Tracy Renck

GREG ANDERSON TIES ALL-TIME NHRA PRO STOCK WIN MARK WITH READING VICTORY - A fun day at Maple Grove ended in celebration for veteran Pro Stock driver Greg Anderson.

Anderson powered his Camaro to the win at the Mopar Express Lane NHRA Nationals presented by Pennzoil Sunday in Reading, Pa., to tie the NHRA all-time Pro Stock victory mark at 97 with his mentor Warren Johnson.

Anderson clocked a 6.578-second elapsed time at 208.30 mph to beat Erica Enders’ 6.604-second lap at 206.73 mph in the finals.

“I was shocked,” Anderson said. “I was absolutely shocked that the win light came on. I have so many races in a row that it would not come on. You think you got everything going for you and everything is going great and the light just comes on in the final round. It is a great, great feeling. There’s nothing better than when the light comes on in the final round at an NHRA national event. That’s why we do it. It is everything for us.

“To finally tie Warren Johnson for the wins record, that’s saying a lot. Obviously, I have a lot of history with him. I kind of have two lives going here. That was my first life, and it was a pretty darn full life and I won a lot of races with him and learned a ton. I moved on and started all over from scratch on my second life and here we are deadlock tied. I guess it is only fitting and a cool story.”

Anderson made his Pro Stock debut in 1999 and earned his first national event win in Bristol, Tenn., beating Jim Yates in the finals in 2001.

This was Anderson's was third win of the season in his sixth final round appearance. He won in Gainesville, Fla., and Atlanta and then lost in the finals in Epping, N.H., Norwalk, Ohio, and Pomona. Calif.

“Now I have a chance to break (the all-time record),” Anderson said. “I’m going to have a chance to break it at my home track in Charlotte (N.C., Sept. 17-19) where I live and I’m going to have a ton of fans out there to support us and obviously the Hendrick Automotive Group will be there, and I can’t think a better place to break the record. I’m looking forward to that. You can’t break the record until you tie it, and I finally got it done today. It was a huge day and fantastic the way everything worked out.”

Anderson, who won world championships in 2003-2005 and 2010, knows nothing will come easy the remainder of the season.

“I started the playoffs on a high note and there are a lot of great cars in the class and any of them can win and I think deep down we know Erica is going to be the one to beat and get around if you want to win a championship,” Anderson said. “We all know every final round she is in; she doesn’t make mistakes and she didn’t again. I just finally did a little bit better job with the race car and apparently, I left the starting line before she did, and I will take it and I will take the victory. I’m so proud of this team I race for. I’m having a ball. I’m 60 years old and I’m having more fun than I ever had. It is a pretty cool deal.”

Anderson will remain No. 1 in the points standings and improved his elimination-round record this season to 29-9.

“I have had confidence in the car all year,” Anderson said. “The car is just bad to the bone. It is a pleasure to drive and that makes your job a lot easier. If you can just go up and think about cutting a light it just works out that much better. It takes a team effort to win in this class and we had it today and we are the champions today and we have five more tries to do this deal and see if we can find a way to win a championship. I like our chances. I have a chance and I’m going to see if I can get it done.” Tracy Renck

HE’S WILD. HE’S OFFBEAT. BUT STEVE JOHNSON IS BIKE CLASS’ FIRST COUNTDOWN WINNER, NEW POINTS LEADER - Sunday’s four Mopar Express Lane NHRA Nationals winners at Maple Grove Raceway, near Reading, Pa. – Billy Torrence (Top Fuel), Tommy Johnson Jr. (Funny Car), Greg Anderson (Pro Stock), and Steve Johnson (Pro Stock Motorcycle) – received a bottle of champagne. 

Torrence, Tommy Johnson, and Anderson sprayed it from the podium in jubilation. 

Steve Johnson drank his. 

But hey – why not? 

He had just won the opener to the seven-race Countdown to the Championship. Just earning the No. 2 seeding among the title-eligible racers was cause to celebrate. But for the first time in his 34-year drag-racing career, Johnson leads the Pro Stock Motorcycle points. 

And when he found out, after defeating four-time class champion Eddie Krawiec with a 6.775-second, 196.87-mph quarter-mile blast down Maple Grove Raceway’s left lane, Johnson giggled like a kid much too young for champagne. 

Moreover, this marks only the third time in the 60-year-old’s career that he has won two races in a season – and the first time since 2008 he has done that. He also earned a pair of Wally trophies in 2005. 

Johnson won the spring four-wide race at Concord, N.C. Now he’ll return triumphant for this coming weekend’s DeWalt Carolina Nationals at zMAX Dragway, when the Camping World Drag Racing Series completes a string of three races in as many weeks. 

When Johnson received the statue Sunday afternoon immediately after stepping from his Suzuki, Johnson said, “I’m so proud of this, because I sucked so bad in qualifying.” 

He said he did, but he was exaggerating – he was the No. 5 starter at this first race in Eastern Pennsylvania since 2019. 

Like Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol,” Johnson indicated that the spirits had done it all in one night, changing his fate. He said his crew told him as much. 

Johnson said the key to his victory was that “well, really, the driver that was here on Saturday and Friday had to leave because he was atrocious. The weather was so fantastic and I think everybody was counting on fast, record-setting times and things like that. The media might not know it and the fans might not know it, but as a competitor, we all know because we see the atmospheric conditions. So I just got sideways. I was really, really bad on Friday and Saturday. Oh my gosh, it was horrible and everybody's going fast. And I'm like, “gosh darn, we want to go fast.” The weather was killer on Friday and Saturday. We had the same crew guys, we had the same people in the trailer, but that's the difference. That's a classic example of riding a ProStock bike or driving a ProStock bike. The driver was here on Sunday. The rider was here on Friday and Saturday. 

“I have an awesome coach. I have a great advisory committee, and everybody said, go back to fundamentals. In Indy, I was out on the starting line. It was raining for half-hour, and it helped. Then today I was out here for a long time before racing started and just went through the fundamentals. So my takeaway from this is you can always learn even when you've been racing for more than five years,” Johnson said. 

But his explanation took him through a rodeo reference. 

“You ride a bull, right? The bull comes out, they pull the gate, and the guy’s hanging on. He's riding a bull. You do not ride a Pro Stock Motorcycle – you drive one. So it's controversial,” Johnson said. “You drive it, you let go of the clutch at 10,000 RPM, the front wheel’s in the air, we start to go crooked. The only way you’re steering is with your feet. You can’t turn the handlebars, because the front wheel’s not on the ground. So you drive a Pro Stock Motorcycle, and I did a pretty good job today.” 

He said, “I was proud of my lights. My lights have been really rough.” 

Then, as if he suddenly noticed the crowds that had packed storied Maple Grove Raceway all weekend, Johnson said, “It's like none of this would be cool without y'all. You guys are so awesome to be here. Thank you so much.” 

Back to business, he said, “I’ve been racing a long time, and I've never led. That's awesome. I don’t even have the trophy. My guys got the trophy.” 

Johnson said he’s “not much of a strategist. It's funny when y'all know me and I can lay out all this intelligent stuff. 

“Man, I talked to Slugger Labbe today. There's so much wealth of knowledge in all the pits here and usually the smartest guys are at home. I think clearly you want to be leading the points and it gives you an advantage and stuff. But it really just boils down to the process,” he said. “We have a lot of people, my buddy, James and Candace were here. They’re sponsors of ours, and they've only been to two races and we've won both of the two that they've been here. So I can't tell you where they're going to be for Charlotte, right? 

“But I think there's an opportunity to learn and drag racing, as corny as it may sound, we as a sport, we as a sanctioning body, offer something fantastic to young people. It's a career opportunity. It's not just in drag racing, it's about skilled trades. That's my life mission, to educate young people on skilled trades,” Johnson said. “So as you learn about skilled trades from all these intelligent people, you learn from the STEM that the whole process of math and how it helps things. My bank account is not doing good with math. But it's an opportunity to learn. 

You really have to be dedicated, and you have to be open to learning,” he said. “And that's what we did today. We learned.” 

And he was in teaching mode Sunday, as well. 

“But go get a motorcycle. Go to a Suzuki dealership and try a motorcycle. Get a dirt bike. Whatever it is, I don't get no love from Suzuki or any love from that. But I'm just telling you, enjoy things. 

“And look – one more thing . . .,” Johnson said. “Just think of one thing this next week that you can learn, because we learn so much and they teach me so much – all the competitors do. So learn something and chalk it up to experience, because it'll make you better.” 

So everybody has been to school – and Steve Johnson has been both teacher and student. More importantly, he is a threat to win the Pro Stock Motorcycle championship. Susan Wade


Scrappers Racing Top Fuel owner-driver Mike Salinas has been paying no attention to the rumors that seem to be swirling around him at the moment.

One has him leaving the Top Fuel class. (He isn’t.) 

The other has tuner Alan Johnson and the entire Brian Husen-led team heading to Kalitta Motorsports next season. (As far as Salinas knows, that’s not true.) 

However, Salinas is going to be racing a Pro Mod car, but he doesn’t plan to ditch Top Fuel. 

“Oh, no,” he said while preparing to qualify for the Mopar Express Lane NHRA Nationals Presented By Pennzoil at Maple Grove Raceway near Reading, Pa. “We're doing both. I'll run my Pro Mod at the next race. I’ll be in Charlotte with my Pro Mod.” 

And what about next year? 

“We’re going to run it, too. I have another one coming, because the girls want to start doing it, too. They want to do double,” the Bay Area businessman said, referring to daughter Jasmine, who competes in the Top Alcohol Dragster class, and daughter Jianna, who races in Pro Stock Motorcycle. 

Mike Salinas confirmed he’ll field “two Pro Mods for sure next year, then depending on the wait of them, there’ll probably be a third and a fourth one coming up.” 

A third daughter, Janae, will be pursuing her Super Comp license Oct. 1-2 at Bakersfield, Calif.’s Famoso Dragstrip. 

As for the team-exodus rumor, Salinas said, “As far as I know, no. And I don't believe so. We’re going to know at the end of the year, aren’t we?” 

Whatever happens, he said, “We always keep moving forward, no matter what.” He refused to become caught up with what he called “all the say-so's and ‘hear this’ and all the rumors.” He said, “If it's going to happen, it's going to happen. And if not, it won’t. I know I can only control what I can control, and that's me.” 

The Salinas contingent has far too much going on to stop and fret about anything. The San Jose-based family never is idle. Collectively, they’re eager for just about any drag-racing adventure. 

“We have to live every day like it's our last, because why would you not? Because we're not promised tomorrow,” Mike Salinas said. “I'm with my family. We're having a great time. We're not going to let anything slow us down.” 

A perfect example is how he has rebounded from the unfortunate circumstances at last weekend’s Dodge SRT U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis that left him unqualified. He experienced a problem with his dragster during his Friday-night qualifying attempt, then rain washed away the final two sessions there Saturday. 

Salinas shouldered the responsibility: “We just need to make sure we have it together. That's all. We gave it a shot at something, and it didn't come out on our side. We just went out, and it just didn't work, whatever we were doing. That's all.” He declined to go into detail, simply saying, “Whatever we did, it didn’t work. We already went through everything that we normally do with our procedures, and we didn't miss anything. We had something that just didn't work in our favor.” 

He sloughed off any angst because the U.S. Nationals is billed as the Camping World Drag Racing Series. To him, all the races are equal. “Actually, you know what? They're all the same, to be honest with you,” he said. Ditto for all the other concerns that everyone talks about. “Don't care who we run. Don't care anything about any of that stuff. We just go out there and do our thing. Don't get caught up into the drama of the race deal,” Salinas said. 

“We all pull through the gates thinking the same thing. Whoever does their best at what they're doing, that's how it comes out. They wind up winning,” he said. 

“But the good thing about this sport is you got to earn it. You got to earn it, and it wouldn't be the same if it was given to you. If it was given to me, I wouldn't want it, because then what are we doing? You got to know it's real, and you got to know you earned it.” 

HART: COUNTDOWN’S WILD CARD – Gatornationals winner Josh Hart, who brought a provisional No. 8 position into Saturday’s final day of qualifying here at Maple Grove, said his R+L Carriers/Technet/Burnyzz Dragster is “a very consistent hot rod” and promised that “with [crew chief] Ron Douglas turning the screws, we’ll slowly creep up on the number that we want to be at. We’ll be competitive on Saturday.” 

He was. In the first Saturday session, second overall, Hart ran a 3.8-second pass as his engine cut out. And he promised that in the final run that “you’ll see a big E.T. or a whole bunch of tire smoke.” He did make his quickest pass of the weekend in that final chance: 3.756 secons, earning himself a No. 10 start and a Sunday morning elimination opener against No. 5 Billy Torrence. 

Hart will be cognizant of lane choice Sunday. He had the importance of lane choice driven home to him at the Camping World Drag Racing Series’ most recent race, last week at Indianapolis. 

“So we had this little bit of a struggle in Indianapolis in the right lane,” he said regarding his semifinal loss to Brittany Force. “But my opinion of that is Safety Safari did a great job. They didn't get to choose the hand that they were dealt, and they were out there slaving away and they did the best that they could. Every one of us had the opportunity to be in control of lane choice. So we didn't run the number . . . you don't get lane choice. So I knew when we got in the [less desirable] right lane, we had a challenge ahead of us. When you're up against somebody like Brittany, you got to go for it. At about 300 feet, we started to smoke the tires. Might as well shut it off so you don't hurt anything.” 

This time, he wants more than just lane choice. 

“We're going to get a lot of rounds. We're going to be the wild card this year and will hopefully shake up the Countdown,” Hart said. 

He winced a bit when he talked bout the decision to skip the races at Topeka and Brainerd this summer after deliberately not competing during the three-race Western Swing. The move most likely cost him a spot in the Countdown, for he lost at least the chance to gain valuable points that could have vaulted him into the title-eligible field rather than the 11th place he brought into this event. 

Hart said he knows he made the right decision to skip those two races. Intellectually, that was the smart move, because some of his crew members “had a COVID scare” that turned out to be cases of RSV virus, respiratory syncytial (sin-SISH-uhl) virus. It’s a common respiratory virus that affects about 3 million people a year and one from which most recover in a week or two. But in this new age of coronavirus, it mimicks COVID to some degree. And Hart didn’t want to take any chances or leave any crew members behind. So the team sat out those two events. 

“I’m very loyal,” Hart said, “and we had some teammates that had COVID concerns. I felt like if we can’t all go as a team, I didn’t want to go half-ass. I thought we were going. I was excited to go. And we could have clinched being in the top 10, too. Got to make hard choices.” 

In the meantime, he said, he bought “as many parts as possible – clutches, superchargers, blocks, heads – everything. We want the best of the best in parts. We had to make some tough decisions, and I think that was 80 percent of it. We totally revamped the car. We put our money into parts, and we moved to Indianapolis. I think we’re right where we want to be. Our inventory is good.” 

He said, “We even have a new car in the works. We have moved into the new shop [at Brownsburg, Ind.], and it’s been amazing. The guys have done a great job with the organization. We’re going to let it rip now.” 

He has the Gainesville victory, a final-quad performance at the Charlotte four-wides, and a semifinal finish at Indianapolis in six completed races. His first Top Fuel victory came surprisingly quickly – in his first race. But that second victory has been a bit more elusive. 

“I tell you, we're going for it. We're going for it every time,” he said. “This class is super competitive, and everybody knows everybody. So you just go out there and throw the kitchen sink at it and hope that you get there first.” 

With just the U.S. Nationals under his belt following his five-event hiatus, Hart said, "I was very excited to get back into the car again," Hart said. “R+L Carriers came on board with a great partnership and will be on board for the long term, I hope.” This is his second race carrying the green and white R+L Carriers banner.

"It's easy to talk about a company that you genuinely believe in," he said. "They have great ethics, and they take care of their people. They do a great job overall. When I'm out here talking to the fans, they talk to other fans, who use R+L Carriers. It's a lot easier than you think, because you genuinely have faith in what they're doing." 

And he has faith in what he and his Douglas-led team are doing on the racetrack. 

GET A CUP OF GEARHEAD - Texas-based Gearhead Coffee has joined Kalitta Motorsports as a hospitality partner, providing coffee in the team’s VIP hospitality areas. Throughout the weekend and rest of the season guests and VIPs will be able to enjoy Gearhead branded premium coffee.
“We are excited to add Gearhead Coffee to our VIP hospitality menu,” said Chad Head, Kalitta Motorsports General Manager. “We are constantly looking to improve the VIP experience for our guests and corporate partners. Providing premium beverages like Gearhead Coffee will only enhance the overall experience. Having a hospitality partner just adds to the diversity of our marketing strategy.”
Gearhead Coffee was born in a two-car garage by a small group of motorsports enthusiasts.  They spent many long nights building a Polaris RZR into a desert car with the intention of competing in the 2015 Baja 1000.  After racing the 2015 and 2016 Baja 1000 they set their eyes on the Best in the Desert race series.  While racing Best in the Desert they realized the need for fresh roasted, high-quality coffee at the events, and thus, in late 2018, Gearhead Coffee was born.


ALEXANDER STRIVING FOR MORE – Funny Car’s Blake Alexander is an intriguing blend of perfectionism, seriousness, and intensity, with dashes of humility and humor – particularly impressive in a young racer who’s just 32 years old (for at least a couple more weeks). 

The Jim Head Racing driver has been making a splash, qualifying for his first Countdown to the Championship and running near the top of the leaderboard. But he isn’t at all impressed with his performance of late. 

“You got to do it for a long period of time,” he said. “So it's good that we've had a couple of months when things went well, but we need to do it for a long period of time and prove that we can sustain it. 

“We need to still find some more performance at the eighth-mile and obviously down-track, too. These guys are running really hard, so we need to keep up with them,” Alexander said. 

He wouldn’t go so far as to say he is enjoying a wave of success. 

“I don't know. Been to every race, except for one or two this year, I think. So I don't ever feel like I don't race enough. I feel like we run a lot and try to keep all of our resources together so that when we show up here, we have everything we need, it's not stressful, and we don't have anything to worry about,” he said, unable to pinpoint the exact formula of his progress. 

“There's a lot of different things we're doing. I don't think it's one thing, and I don't think it really ever is with these cars. They're so finicky and [have] a lot of different inputs. The crew chiefs obviously are doing a good job, the crew chief and car chief. I'm getting a little bit more comfortable driving the car, and the track prep has come around, and that kind of helps us, too,” Alexander said. 

His rapport with Head is developing, but Alexander stopped short of calling it magic. 

“We haven't won a race yet,” he reminded. “So once we win a race we can say there's magic. Until then, we're just picking away at it and trying to get better every day. We enjoy working together, and I guess that part of it is that there's respect. Obviously, there's some of the business side we work together on. So, yeah, it works out well.” 

The two-time winner has that same humble attitude about competing in his first Countdown.   

“It’s a normal drag race. Just more attention from the outside,” he said of the seven-event Countdown that is kicking off here.” He did allow that “it's cool” and said, “Obviously, we are going to try to do well. Still kind of being aggressive when we can and on Sunday we'll race as smart as we can. Our plan here is to start off being aggressive and try to run with these guys, because a lot of them have run better than us even though we've run OK.” 

With Head’s reputation for innovation and a keen interest in safety and Alexander’s vibe as a deeper thinker than most, it’s easy to see that the two might have some productive discussions inside the hauler. But Alexander said he doesn’t really engage in those kinds of issues with Head. 

“I've done this in the past, and it's different than the way he does it and his process. This,” he said, standing in the middle of his pit space, “is his playground over here and I just work here and try to hit the gas on time and keep the car in the middle.” 

Alexander shrugged off the notion that he’s a deep thinker: “I guess. I don't know. Probably just reading books in the lounge earlier today, books about being directed in life and calm and stuff like that. I don't want to say self-help,” he said. Then with an almost rare laugh, he said, “But I need all the help I can get.” 

THAT’S A NO-NO – Pro Stock drivers Alan Prusiensky and John Gaydosh were disqualified during the early Saturday session before they ever left the starting line. Both crossed the starting line twice in the process of staging their cars, and that is against the rules. 

Prusiensky expressed his irritation: “I don’t think I crossed it twice. I locked the brakes up right after the burnout. I did what I could do. I can’t tell if I’m past the line. I did everything I could do to stop the car, not hurt anybody. I mean, give us a break, man. We’re just little teams out here, trying to fight against these guys. And you don’t even give us a chance. It’s retarded.” 

Public-address announcer Alan Rinehart responded, “Sorry you feel that way, Alan. The rules apply to everybody. As a matter of fact, we tossed [three-time Pro Stock champion] Jason Line for it one time.” 


MIGHTY FORCE – Brittany Force was super-impressive throughout qualifying, earning her seventh consecutive No. 1 starting berth in the Flav-R-Pac Dragster. Few figured in the heat of Saturday that anyone could top Force’s Friday elapsed time of 3.666 seconds, but someone did – Force. She lowered her class-best E.T. by six-thousandths of a second, to 3.660. That 3.660-second E.T. was the second-quickest in the class this season.Force set low E.T. of the meet at the spring Charlotte race at 3.662 seconds.

Her thunderous 335.57-mph speed Friday night was not only a track record, but ut also was the fifth-fastest in Top Fuel history. As extraordinary as her numbers were, the number for her that might be the most significant is nine. That’s how many qualifying bonus points the No. 2 Countdown seed earned, while points leader and No. 3 race qualifier Steve Torrence gained just two this weekend. That’s significant, considering her 411-point deficit had been pared to just 20 points with the NHRA’s top-10 manipulation.   


MORRISON HAS BOOMER – Joe Morrison didn’t have to worry that he might not make the Top Fuel field for Sunday’s eliminations. The class has just 13 racers entered. But he was disappointed after the second overall qualifying session that his Right2Breathe R.I.D.E. Dragster out of the Leverich Racing operation dropped some cylinders on the early Saturday run and had some engine damage and an oildown. The one positive things that came from the pass was that his 4.027-second elapsed time at 249.90-mph speed was the better of Morrison’s two attempts this weekend.

“We’re definitely going to go back and look at what happened. We expected it to go a lot faster than that. I felt it laying over at the end, so I lifted early. The last thing we want to do is put that beautiful PennGrade oil on the track. We want to keep it in the car. The car should definitely be performing better. We’re getting there. It’s baby steps,” he said. 

Morrison, who said new hire Lance Larsen “is helping us make huge strides forward,” said he was going to “get ready to rock and roll for race day. We’re ready for race day.” 

He’s using his platform to promote a program within his Right2Breathe initiative. It’s called R.I.D.E., which he said is an acronym, loosely, for “Right2Breathe Inhaler Identification and Education.” 

“With inhaled medications and lung disease, it’s not like taking a pill. You take a pill and you  know it’s going to where it needs to get to, because it works through your digestive stsyem and enters your bloodstream that way. With inhaled medication, if you don’t use the correct technique for that particular inhaler, you can actually wind up not getting the medicine where it needs to get to. And it is a major problem with people living with lung disease, not getting their medications as effectively as they need to,” he said. 

“So what we did was use the Christmas Tree in drag racing to kind of explain, with asthma in particular, whether your asthma is well-controlled and to identify the differences between your rescue medication and your maintenance medication,” Morrison said. “We used the Christmas Tree with yellow and red lights to show, like, a foul, for your rescue medication and the Christmas Tree with green lights to put on your maintenance med. That helps identify them. So we have the cute little stickers that go on the inhalers so people can easily see which one is rescue and which one is maintenance. It helps with the identification of them.” 

He said, “We have educational material. We have brochures and handouts we give out. One of the things we’re doing to grow the program is to have online videos of inhaler techniques.” That will be coming soon. 

Morrison did not make a Q3 run and remained 13th in the Top Fuel order. He will start eliminations against No. 2 qualifier and No. 1-ranked Steve Torrence.

FOLEY ON FAMILIAR GROUND – This is only the fifth race this year for Doug Foley. His appearance at Norwalk was his only one in the past nine events. He advanced to the second round at the Charlotte four-wide race. Foley is no stranger to Maple Grove Raceway. Although he and his Foley & Lewis race team are based at Mooresville, N.C., Foley started his drag-racing school when he lived at Sewell, N.J., and he often worked with clients here at Maple Grove Raceway. He’ll meet his former IHRAchief rival, Clay Millican, when eliminations begin Sunday.   


MOTORCYCLE MILESTONE – Pro Stock Motorcycle’s Eddie Krawiec has 49 victories. With his next one, he will become just the second bike-class competitor to earn 50 victories and on;y the 14th competitor in NHRA history to score 50 or more. 

Meanwhile in Pro Stock, HendrickCars.com Chevy Camaro driver Greg Anderson remains poised to earn his 97th victory, which would tie him with his long-ago mentor Warren Johnson for most victories in class history. Anderson, who seized the No. 2 position, will open his quest Sunday against No. 15 John Gaydosh. 


RAT RACE SATISFYING – Pennsylvania native Ron “Rat” Tornow gave major props to four-time Pro Stock Motorcycle champion Matt Smith for helping him get his Victory bike set up. But he has been stepping up his own skill level, trying to ease into a more independent situation. And in the early Saturday session, he made a huge leap forward, running in the six-second range for the first time with his own bike prep. 

His 6.981-second elapsed time (at 188.33 mph) put him 15th in the starting line-up, but the daunting news is that in the opening round of eliminations, he’ll face No. 2 qualifier Smith, who has helped him get to this point. 

“Matt has been so gracious, helping us get the bike set up,” Tornow, of Pittsburgh, said. “He comes over and checks on us and makes sure we’re doing OK. 

“But we started the last event trying to do some things on our own. This is the first one we did ourselves. We ran in the 6s. We had a 1.05 60-foot [incremental time]. This is awesome,” a jubilant Tornow said.    

After his Q2 elation, Tornow cut a nearly perfect .002 light on his final qualifying chance. However, the chain broke off early in the run. 

CLONTZ RETURNS - Kelly Clontz has made the field for the first time since taking a spill on her Pro Stock Motorcycle at Norwalk. She started the final session Saturday on the bump spot but improved two positions to No. 14 by the end of qualifying and will take on No. 3 starter Eddie Krawiec in runoffs Sunday. She’s looking for her first round-win of the season and third of her 51-race career. 


JUST MY OPINION – Three-time Funny Car champion Robert Hight said following his provisional-top-qualifying performance Friday night: “I don’t honestly think we need a Countdown in Funny Car. With the quality of cars you have and as many as there are, you don’t need a Countdown.” 


SPEEDY SMITH – Despite clocking three speeds at 201 mph or better – and one at 202.09 mph – top Pro Stock Motorcycle Countdown seed Matt Smith, the reigning series champion, fared no better on the ladder than No. 2. He’ll meet No. 15 Ron Tornow in Round 1 Sunday.  




Funny Car driver Jim Campbell, Pro Stock’s Kenny Delco, and Pro Stock Motorcycle’s Cory Reed are the first to take advantage of the NHRA’s new Countdown to the Championship inclusion policy. 

The three finished the so-called “regular season” in 11th place in their respective categories, normally meaning they would not be eligible to compete for the championship. However, the NHRA announced Jan. 22 that it has expanded its Countdown policy to include all racers outside the top 10 who compete at every race in the class. 

So the three have had a rejuvenated sense of purpose as the seven-race Countdown began Friday evening with the Mopar Express Lane NHRA Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway near Reading, Pa. 

The nitro classes raced at 13 events in the regular season. Pro Stock had 11, and the bikes appeared at nine. 

JOHNSON STILL SUBBING – Tommy Johnson Jr. and Matt Hagan have a whole new dimension to their professional relationship. Last year, the two Don Schumacher Racing drivers battled each other to the final day of the season at Las Vegas, and Hagan claimed his third series crown while denying Johnson his first. Now, as Hagan continues to recover from a nasty bout with COVID, Johnson is his ally. He is substituting for Hagan behind the wheel of the Mopar Dodge SRT Hellcat for the second straight race. 

“Last year, Matt and I battled it out for the championship, and now here I am trying to help him win it,” Johnson said. “And it would be cool to be a part of another championship for him.” 

Hagan told The Capital Sports Report’s Anthony Caruso that he possibly could remain sidelined for next week’s Countdown Race No. 2, at zMAX Dragway at Charlotte. Hagan said he expects to be back in the cockpit at St. Louis, at the Sept. 24-26 Midwest Nationals at World Wide Technology Raceway at Madison, Ill. 

Johnson, who has won here at Reading in both 1999 and 2016, said he also hopes to remind folks that his driving skills still are sharp. 

“We’re going to go out there, do the best we can, and try to win some rounds and hopefully win the race. I’m not coming back just to take the car down the track. I want to come back and win the race and maybe raise some eyebrows on my talents.” 

His Indianapolis appearance came about in the 11th hour, and it resulted in a DNQ because of a broken wheelie bar that prevented him from making a Friday night run and a rainstorm Saturday that took away the final two qualifying sessions. “The past several days have been such a whirlwind and a roller coaster of emotions: from the excitement that I’d get to drive a nitro Funny Car again and then a letdown when we didn’t get to make a run.” 

But this time Johnson is a lot more prepared. 

“I got the call earlier this week that I may be needed again,” he said, “and fortunately, we were able to test. It allowed me to knock some rust off and get familiarized with the car and the team. That just shows you how professional this team is and how seriously they’re focused on making sure this car runs for a championship. It’s an unfortunate circumstance for sure, but I’m glad I’m able to help them out. Now that I’ve gotten a few laps under my belt, I feel very prepared going into this weekend’s race in Reading. I actually ran a career-best speed in testing [333.00 mph]. It was a really good test session overall, and I’m looking forward to going back to a track where I’ve had a lot of success in the past, and a lot of history. My first Funny Car win was at Reading in 1999, and I was fortunate to win it again a few years back with DSR. So there’s a lot of excitement and positivity going into the weekend. 

“This Mopar team has done a great job in this circumstance. I hate it for Matt that he is not able to get back behind the wheel this weekend,” Johnson said, “but I’m happy to hop in and help these guys out in their championship chase.” 

The Johnson/Hagan combo is starting the Countdown in fifth place, and Hagan will be credited any points Johnson earns. 

BIKE SPEED RECORD FALLS – U.S. Nationals Pro Stock Motorcycle winner Eddie Krawiec set the track speed record for the bike class at 201.67 with his 6.763-second pass in Friday evening qualifying. Matt Smith followed with a 201.34 but was three-thousandths of a second slower than Krawiec (6.766). But Angelle Sampey took the provisional No. 1 spot in the line-up with her 6.761-second elapsed time.  


RUDE WELCOME BACK – Part-time racer Cory Lee, who clocked a 246.03-mph speed to kick off Funny Car qualifying, smacked the wall on his run just before the finish line. As per the rules, his time was disqualified. He’ll have two more chances Saturday to jump into the field.  


ASHLEY FINALLY RACING AT HIS HOME TRACK – As a youngster, Justin Ashley, last season’s NHRA rookie of the year, had been to most tracks on what’s now the Camping World Drag Racing Series, traveling with his driver dad, Mike Ashley. But having hung out at them and competing at them are two different things. Ashley knew that when he stepped up from the Top Alcohol Dragster level to Top Fuel, and taking on each of them from a driver’s perspective has reinforced that. 

What’s funny is that Ashley calls Maple Grove Raceway his home track but said, “I have been to Maple Grove a number of times but never raced there.” Well, he’s here, racing at the Reading facility that racers have long loved for its mostly mineshaft conditions that produce impressive numbers and performance records. 

“Reading is my home track so I will have some friends and family in attendance. That, in conjunction with the start of the playoffs is the perfect combination for an exciting weekend,” he said. “It does not get any better than this.” It could, if he can put his Smart Sanitizer Dragster powered by Strutmasters.com in the winners circle for a Countdown coup. 

Ashley is in seventh place in the standings, not nearly as daunting a position now that the NHRA has adjusted the points for parity. With his preference for back-to-back races that keep his skills sharp – coupled with his class-best reputation for cutting outstanding reaction times – Ashley decidedly is capable of putting pressure on the rest of the field. 

“We get into a better groove when we are at the race track every weekend,” Ashley said. “Since the beginning of the season, we’ve had an elite crew led by crew chief Mike Green, but somehow they’ve found ways to increase their performance each race. Starting the Countdown with three races in a row will be good for our team. These guys work great together. I like our chances at the end of the season.” 

A bit of a disappointment at Indianapolis last weekend has him even more motivated. 

“We didn’t get the results we wanted at the U.S. Nationals,” he said, “but that doesn’t take away from the positive effort we all put into the event. We got one qualifying run, and then we were on a great run in the first round. I think if we can get a couple strong qualifying runs in Reading and then go into race day with some momentum, we’ll have a great race.” 

This has been a season full of new experiences and continued development as a professional, and that includes the Countdown itself. Because of the shortened 2020 schedule, the NHRA scrapped the playoffs and returned to the traditional method of determining a champion – with just as much drama (including the announcement of Ashley’s selection as rookie of the year). 

So the Camping World Series, like Ashley, is experiencing a first Countdown. Ashley finished his rookie year in seventh place – where he is starting the Countdown this season. Ashley has continued to develop as a driver, leading the class in reaction-time average. He has tapped into his fellow drivers to become a stronger driver. And though he said he enjoys the camaraderie in the sport, he knows when to get down to serious business. 

Ashley said, “I will talk with a few of my peers to get my bearings when it comes to racing at a new track. You want to be familiar with the turnoffs and track layout. Antron Brown and I speak regularly, and there are a few other guys I will talk with, as well. I have a great relationship with all the other Top Fuel teams. Now that the Countdown has started, all the drivers and teams will be even more focused. It will be an intense seven races, and I am looking forward to being behind the wheel, representing our sponsors at a time when it matters most.” 

KALITTA GLAD FOR EXTRA COUNTDOWN EVENT – This year, the Countdown to the Championship consists of seven races instead of the traditional six, thanks to the addition of a Bristol race to the schedule. 

And Doug Kalitta said he’s happy about that extra event: “We have some work cut out for us, but luckily we have an extra race in this Countdown.” 

He said before qualifying started that his “Mac Tools team will be ready. The last time we raced there, we went to the final against a teammate [Richie Crampton]. That is a fast track, and there is an opportunity for us to pick up some qualifying bonus points, too.” 

The No. 10 seed for the Countdown said he had thought he was going to win his quarterfinal pedal-fest against Billy Torrence last weekend at Indianapolis: “That was a tough race, and I thought I was going to be able to hold on for the win. The track was tricky in the early rounds.” 

Then, referring to the fact steady rain last Saturday robbed everyone of two more qualifying sessions for the U.S. Nationals, Kalitta said, “I think if we get three qualifying sessions in Reading, we’ll be good to go to race against anyone.” 

His next victory will be his 50th, making him just the fifth Top Fuel driver to reach that plateau. He would join Tony Schumacher (85 victories), Larry Dixon (62), Joe Amato (52), and Antron Brown (52). 

Kalitta said, “Nothing is ever guaranteed in this sport. I have won from just about every qualifying position, and I feel really good about this Mac Tools team. If we can get off to a strong start in Reading, then we will look at the next race in Charlotte. Right now, our focus is on winning the race at Maple Grove Raceway.” He did that in 2002, defeating Kenny Bernstein in the final round. 

WANTS TO GET IN HAPPY GROOVE – Driving the “Bounty Hunter”-branded Connie Kalitta-tribute dragster for a second straight weekend, No. 5-ranked Top Fuel driver Shawn Langdon said he’s “determined to go some rounds in Reading. We only got one qualifying run on Friday night [last weekend at Indianapolis], and we missed on that tune up, so I had to pedal it to get us in the show. I am looking forward to getting three qualifying runs at Maple Grove and seeing what we can do on race day.” 

And he said, “I feel like you have a great shot of winning the championship from where we are seeded. Really, you can win a championship from anywhere in the Countdown if you get off to a hot start. You could see some great performance numbers this weekend, and I feel good about our chances to put up some low E.T.s. Qualifying bonus points are a big deal in the Countdown, and when you get down to the last couple of races in the season they can really add up.” 

He’s looking for his first No. 1 qualifying position in a year (since the 2020 U.S. Nationals, which he won). He’s 50 points off leader Steve Torrence’s pace now that the NHRA has adjusted the standings, confident that with 20 points per round he can move up with a strong outing. He said Maple Grove Raceway, which saw its race canceled last season amid pandemic-related restrictions, has a really quick surface. 

And he said, “We are jumping right into the Countdown with three races in a row, so drivers are going to have to be on their game. I am looking forward being in the seat every weekend, because you really can get into a good groove.” 

As for his livery, Langdon said, “This is one of the best-looking race cars I have ever driven, and we want to continue to honor Connie.” The team reported that the gold-and-white Bounty Hunter design was so popular with the crowd at Indianapolis that T-shirts bearing the design were flying off the Fatheadz souvenir trailer shelves each day of the event and that overwhelmingly positive response is why Kalitta Motorsports decided to bring it to the Countdown kickoff. 

PRUETT CONSISTENT – Leah Pruett said she’s pretty satisfied with her HEMI-powered Don Schumacher Racing Mopar Dodge//SRT D and content to start the seven-race Countdown from the No. 4 position. Racing with the familiar Mopar blue-and-white primary paint scheme, she was eager to get the action rolling at her sponsor’s race and start her fifth Countdown. She’s seeking her first Maple Grove Raceway victory. 

She said she and her Todd Okuhara-Neal Strausbaugh-led team “feel good” about their spot in the standings – and how their car is behaving. “Right now, we have the most capable and consistent car that we've had all year long and that is responding to what we want it to do. That's exactly where we want to be going into the Countdown." 

QUALIFYING QUEEN WANTS EVERY POINT POSSIBLE – Brittany Force and the Flav-R-Pac / Monster Energy team rose in the standings from as far back as 10th place at the beginning of the season to second as this run for the title gets under way. 

She’s going for her second Top Fuel championship and is elated that, with enormous help from the NHRA manipulating the points system, she is just 20 points behind Steve Torrence. When she threw a monkey wrench into his plans in 2017 and claimed the title he had expected to be his, she started from the No. 6 spot. She has a closer shot at Torrence this time – she trails him by just 20 points. And she should be grateful for that manipulation – she was 411 points behind Torrence. So he lost all but 20 points of 411-point advantage with the recalculated standings. 

Now she knows the burden is on her to rise to this occasion. “Now this Flav-R-Pac team really has to step it up. It’s game on. Every point matters, every run matters, everything we do matters, and we can’t make mistakes.” She said, “We plan for three solid qualifying runs, another No. 1 qualifier, and going rounds on race day. We are chasing down that top spot. This team is looking to get everything we can out of this weekend,” Force said. 

She’s the queen of qualifying, with a streak of six No. 1 starting positions and eight overall this year so far. Six No. 1 starts in a row is the most by any pro driver since Pro Stocker Allen Johnson did it in 2012 and ties Brittany with dad John Force (1994), Don Prudhomme (1976), Warren Johnson and Jim Yates (both 1997), Greg Anderson (2004), Tony Schumacher (2005), and Allen Johnson for 10th longest all-time consecutive No. 1 qualifier streaks. 

Force has some unfinished business she’d like to tidy up at Maple Grove Raceway. Her 2019 visit here looked so promising. She took the No. 1 starting position, set the quickest elapsed time during eliminations (3.691 seconds), and registered the current national E.T. record of 3.623 seconds (Sept. 14, 2019). But her dragster broke on the burnout before her semifinal race against Richie Crampton. She has reached the final round here three times in seven appearances but has yet to score a victory. 

PEDREGON MOVING CLOSER TO GOALS – Eliminations Sunday could get rather intriguing, if Snap-on Dodge SRT Hellcat owner-driver Cruz Pedregon winds up facing Matt Hagan substitute Tommy Johnson Jr. at some point. That’s because tuner John Collins, assistant crew chief Rip Reynolds, and his entire team of mechanics – the ones who have helped Pedregon to a Norwalk victory, a runner-up finish at Brainerd, and two semifinals in the past seven races – worked with Johnson at Don Schumacher Racing. 

And Pedregon certainly appreciates them and what they have helped his team accomplish so far this season. 

"We're getting closer to our goal of getting into the top five with a solid car and crew. The Snap-on 'Makers and Fixers' car is responding to the great tune-up J.C. [John Collins] and Rip are doing. It's taken time to get to where we are now, and the team has been there for us every round. We're looking forward to an exciting playoff season," Pedregon said. 

The two-time Maple Grove winner (1999, 2010) is ranked eighth in points as the 2021 Countdown begins. And he said, “We're really optimistic,” calling this dragstrip “a fast racetrack” and saying, after studying the weather forecasts, “It's just going to be a ‘just hammer down’ kind of event. The fall temperatures are going to cool down but the action is going to heat up. One thing we did prove at Brainerd two races ago is that we can hammer out the fast times and run [elapsed-time passes] in the high 3.80s. That's probably what it's going to take to win down the stretch here. We're just going to take one race at a time and keep this momentum going that we've enjoyed. I’ve talked to JC [John Collins] and Rip and everybody's excited and just looking forward to it.” 

Pedregon spent the short time between the U.S. Nationals and this event attending "grill ’n' chill" gatherings with Snap-on franchisees and their clients in the Reading area. Cruz has been involved with these events for a decade, talking tools, cars, and all things NHRA with techs in the shops that franchisees call on each week. 

TODD ‘ALL ABOUT WINNING RACES’ – JR Todd has driven Kalitta Motorsports’ DHL Toyota Camry to at least the quarterfinals at every national event except for one. He won the season-opening Gatornationals and raced to three more final rounds, including two in the past four events. 

He said, “I have a race car that can make quick runs and win rounds.” 

Todd won the 2018 Reading Funny Car trophy. The Lawrenceburg, Ind., native is one of only three to win at Maple Grove Raceway in both the Top Fuel and Funny Car classes, joining Kenny Bernstein and Gary Scelzi. Todd took the Top Fuel trophy in 2006 and won in Funny Car 12 years later. 

He earned the 2108 Funny Car series championship from the No. 5 seed. This year, he’ll start the Countdown in fourth place. 

“In 2018, we got hot winning Indy and then coming right to Reading, winning again,” the 10-time Funny Car winner said. “We have had a lot of success at the Countdown race tracks, and we are focusing on getting off to a good start this weekend. From here on out, it’s all about winning races. We’ve got seven races to go out there and run as hard as we can and get as many round wins as we can. We’re in the hunt, and our DHL Toyota and this Kalitta Motorsports team are capable of winning a championship. That’s our goal.” 

CAPPS LOVES HIS RACE CAR, TEAM – Regular-season Funny Car champion Ron Capps, understandably, said, “I’m really pumped to start the playoffs,” because “having a race car as good as ours is right now, with consistency and performance, is exciting. We won the championship in 2016 without winning a race in the Countdown, but [ours was], by far, the most consistent car. We put the pressure on people, and that’s what you have to do. We have a great team with [crew chiefs] John Medlen and Guido [Dean Antonelli]. They’re firing on all cylinders, and it’s really great to drive this Hellcat Funny Car.” Capps’ history at Reading includes a particularly satisfying 2019 visit – he was top qualifier and set the track elapsed-time and speed records (3.837 seconds, 339.28 mph). He won the event in 2017. 


FORCE AMPED FOR COUNTDOWN– No one can accuse John Force, even at age 72, of being uninspiring. He’s ready to roll into his 14th Countdown in pursuit of a 17th Funny Car championship. 

“Kicking off the Countdown, being up there in points, No. 2, we’re going after it,” the PEAK Chevy Camaro driver who is one of only five pro drivers to qualify for every playoff since 2007, said. “I’ve still got a lot of fight in me. I’m ready. My team is ready. I love this. It’s going to be a fun ride, and I’m ready to get started.” 

He’s lurking in second place, just 20 points behind leader Ron Capps. 

“It’s the time when you get that fire in your belly. It’s the Countdown, the final stretch. I’m proud of what this PEAK Chevy team has done so far. Danny Hood, Tim Fabrisi [crew chiefs], all these young guys, they’ve worked hard, and we’re hoping to make it pay off in the end,” he said. 

Force has three victories this season (at Charlotte in four-wide format and at Epping, N.H., and Topeka, where he shared the winners circle with daughter Brittany Force for the first time). He has 162 No. 1 starts, earning top spots with Brittany at Charlotte Four-Wide and at the most recent event, the Dodge U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis). 

This weekend, he is trying to win his fourth race in a season for the 14th time in his career. Force is a 15-time finalist and seven-time winner at Maple Grove Raceway. He won here most recently in 2013. He was runner-up to Jack Beckman the last time he raced at Maple Grove in 2019. Force also has eight No. 1 qualifiers here but not since 2013. 

“I love coming out to Reading and Maple Grove Raceway. The fans . . . the setting . . . it’s great,” Force said. 

Force has been thinking about more than his on-track performance. He has invested some serious time ensuring his business will grow and his legacy will continue. To that end, he has hired Ted Van Zelst as John Force Racing’s Chief Commercial Officer. 

In this newly carved-out role, Van Zelst will be responsible for developing new partnerships, enhancing business-to-business relationships with existing partners, and facilitating successful activation. 

“The way business is being done has changed, and I need to change with it,” Force said. “Hiring Ted is a step in the right direction, the direction of keeping John Force Racing, my family, and my legacy, alive and well for years to come. Having Robert Hight as president of the company and now hiring Ted and the team he is putting together, we’ll be able to create and maintain high-level partnerships for years to come.” 

Van Zelst brings 25 years of experience in securing corporate sponsorship, handling high-level partners, and building lasting relationships with key contributors. He has been an executive with such sports franchises as the Detroit Pistons, NASCAR, WWE, and the New York Islanders.  

HOT-OR-COLD HIGHT FEELING HOT NOW – For Robert Hight and his Automobile Club of Southern California Chevy Camaro, performance has been on one end of the spectrum or the complete opposite. 

“We’ve either been on or off. We haven’t had any in-between,” Hight said. “We took advantage of some testing, and we’re confident with what we have. [Crew chiefs] Jimmy Prock and Chris Cunningham have a handle on the Chevy, and they’ll get us to where we need to be. This Auto Club team has figured things out at the right time.” 

The formula for success, Hight said, is simple: “We need to go A to B, get the car down the track, earn qualifying points, and set ourselves up to go rounds on race day. We know we can do that.” 

He has one victory at Maple Grove Raceway. He defeated Johnny Gray in the 2011 final (after an 11th-place start). He has the led the field here twice, in 2015 and 2017. 

Hight agreed with his colleagues that this dragstrip is notoriously fast and said, “Conditions [here] are always set up to be exciting. It’s why it’s a great place to start the Countdown and gain some confidence, some momentum, to go after another championship." 

He is seeded sixth, but that makes no difference to him. It’s no wonder – he is the only racer in any class to win the championship from the No. 10 starting position (2009) and the top seeded position (2019). He also is the only Funny Car driver to have won a Countdown race in each of the last three Countdown seasons (2017, 2018, 2019). His 12 Countdown victories mark the most by any Funny Car driver, and he’s tied for fourth-most overall. 

Hight won at Houston and Sonoma, has two runner-up performances (at Gainesville and Epping, N.H.). 

VINCENT NOBILE – For Vincent Nobile, a lot of happy news is breaking this month. The 29-year-old from Long Island just became engaged this week to Taylor Iacono, the 22-year-old Division 1 ace who graduated from the Jr. Dragster ranks and is licensed in both Super Comp and Super Street (and is the niece of Top Alcohol Dragster driver Jackie Fricke). And he’s back behind the wheel of one of Richard Freeman’s Elite Camaros this weekend. His last appearance was a hastily arranged, last-minute deal for the final edition of the Southern Nationals in May. In that first race for him since the November 2018 Finals at Pomona, Nobile reached the final round and was runner-up to Greg Anderson. In that 2018 season, Nobile won three events – at the Las Vegas four-wide spring race, Atlanta, and Reading. So his most recent victory was at this event.    


TROY COUGHLIN JR. – Just like his six-time champion uncle Jeg Coughlin Jr., Troy Coughlin Jr.’s JEGS.com Elite Motorsports Chevy Pro Stock Camaro will carry the logo of Universal Parks and Resorts. What has him really jazzed about the longstanding partnership between his family and the entertainment giant is the fact he’ll be promoting Universal at Reading, Charlotte, and St. Louis – three key markets and prime positioning on FOX TV. 

He said, "With so much excitement about the playoffs this year, we're expecting the largest TV audiences of the season – including quite possibly the largest drag-racing audience ever, for the Charlotte event, because that race immediately follows an NFL game on FOX.” 

Scott Woodruff, JEGS director of motorsports, said, "We have a unique partnership through the 'Fast & Furious Supercharged' attractions at both the Orlando and Hollywood locations, because our involvement is very authentic to the experience. The attraction allows guests to ride along with the all-star cast from the hit movies on an exhilarating, high-speed chase that exceeds 120 mph and catapults guests into the high-stakes underworld of fast cars and international crime cartels through the use of hyper-realistic special effects and 3D-HD imagery projected onto expansive 360-degree screens.” 

(To show his media savvy, Coughlin, 31, gave this testimony: "Aside from all the rides and fun to be had, Universal Parks and Resorts also are a great place to relax, which is necessary at times when you're chasing championships against the best drivers in the world. I personally am very pumped up about this, because we've been going to Universal Parks and Resorts for years as a family, and now that [wife] Brenna and I are parents, we're already looking forward to taking our little girl [Aubrey Joy] there.") 

This is Troy Coughlin Jr.'s second year in the Pro Stock class but his first chance to compete in the Countdown, as the NHRA dropped the format in 2020. 

And Coughlin said he likes the drama of it all: “Let’s go! It's time to rock 'n' roll. It's my first Countdown, and I'm extremely proud to be a part of the field and, more importantly, to be headed into the battle with this incredible group. Mark Ingersoll, Kelly Murphy, Steven Hurley, Eric Luzinski, and Kyle Bates . . . those are the guys that make it all work, and I wouldn't want to race with anyone else. Pro Stock is so tight with so many great drivers, literally the best in the world, and it usually comes down to fractions of a second every race." 

Coughlin Jr. said, "You truly live and die by your mistakes, and the winner each weekend is generally the one who limited those missteps we all make. You have to seek joy in the struggles and the challenges along the way, learn from them, and then put it all behind you and stay locked on to what's directly ahead. That's what it takes to win consistently, and I have a great example of how to achieve ultimate success right across my pit with Erica [his Elite teammate and four-time class champion].” 

He is ranked No. 7 entering this event.