2023 NHRA MIDWEST NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK - A PACKED HOUSE, A SCARY MOMENT AND A HOT DAY MAKE FOR AN INTERESTING FINAL DAY OF QUALIFYING
IT’S A SELLOUT - So, NHRA Drag Racing is dying? Saturday marked the eighth sellout of the 2023 NHRA season.
SCARY MOMENT - During Saturday’s Q2 session of Pro Stock Motorcycle, veteran rider Angie Smith took a tumble in the World Wide Technologies Raceway shutdown area. She became separated from his Denso-sponsored bike. A statement from her team confirmed she sustained two broken feet and severe road rash, likely leading to skin grafts.
NHRA revealed Smith was alert and conscious, talking with the medical personnel before she was transported to a local hospital for further evaluation.
The entire Matt Smith Racing team pulled out of the third and final qualifying session.
Sadie Glenn, spokesperson for Matt Smith Racing, has confirmed Angie suffered two broken feet and extensive road rash as a result of her crash Saturday afternoon. Smith is expected to meet with a skin graft surgeon on Sunday morning.
“They wanted to say thank you for all the messages and phone calls, and we will give updates as they come. What’s important is Angie is stable and going to be okay.”
Ironically, Smith was riding opposite Cory Reed, a Pro Stock Motorcycle rider who crashed at the 2021 NHRA Carolina Nationals, suffering an extensive leg injury.
Smith’s run was nothing out of the ordinary as she recorded a 6.880 elapsed time at 198.93 pass.
The entire Matt Smith Racing team pulled out of the lanes and did not compete for the rest of the day.
KALITTA GETS ANOTHER ONE - Doug Kalitta predicted on Friday evening that his run would hold what was expected to be hotter conditions. He was right.
Kalitta’s dream playoff season continued as he sealed the deal on his 53rd career Top Fuel No. 1. His best run, 3.709 seconds at 331.85 mph in the first qualifying session, stood the test of time.
“I was really happy with that .72 in that last session,” Kalitta said. “My car has been really consistent. I just can’t say enough about how hard everybody is working on my car. Great crowd here today, a sellout. Connie Kalitta is our fearless leader out here and given me a great opportunity over the years.
“It’s just nice when it all can come together like it has the last couple of races for my car. We’re just going to hold on and do our best and keep going rounds, as many as we can get. We’re definitely looking forward to tomorrow, whatever it gives us, and hopefully we can have it dialed in real nice.”
TASCA ON THE MOVE - Bob Tasca III has never led the NHRA point standings in his Funny Car driving career. But after securing his sixth No. 1 qualifying, he’s hoping heading into race day as the top seed at the NHRA Midwest Nationals will put him atop the championship race.
Tasca’s 3.852 elapsed time at 324.90 mph on Friday was never in jeopardy.
“Very exciting, but one round at a time, one run at a time,” Tasca said. “We really don’t pay as much attention to what the cars around us are running. We have enough data now with this car and enough track information to go up there and try to go as quickly as we can for the conditions that are presented.
“You want to be in the (championship) conversation. No one can guarantee a championship. No one knows what’s going to happen over the next four races, but you want to be in the conversation. That’s why the sponsors invest in us; that’s what the fans cheer about. We’re going to do the best we can, and if we come out victorious, it’s that much sweeter. But this is what it’s all about. I’ve been around a lot of successful teams. We’ve had some good runs, but this is clearly our best run at it.”
HERRERA DOING HERRERA THINGS - As dominant as Gaige Herrera’s 2023 NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle season has been, it is not surprising that he added his name to the sanctioning body’s record books on Saturday.
Herrera clocked a 6.716-second elapsed time at 201.79 mph on Friday on his Vance & Hines / Mission Foods Suzuki, and it held through Saturday for him to grab the No. 1 qualifying spot at the Midwest Nationals in St. Louis.
“It felt really good. We were kind of expected to go like a 72, so to go out there and run at 71, I’m happy with that,” Herrera said.
Herrera has now qualified No. 1 for the 11th time this season in 12 races. That ties him with Matt Hines for the single-season Pro Stock Motorcycle
record of No. 1 qualifiers. Hines accomplished his feat in 1998.
“Oh, it’s very exciting. I mean, I think it’s more exciting for Andrew (Hines) and his dad, Byron, and they work on those motor programs nonstop,”
Herrera said. “So that’s more towards them. It showcases their work. I mean, I’m just excited to be a part of it. I’m very lucky to ride for them and
to be a part of that. And so overall, I think it is a showcase for Vance & Hines.”
On Saturday, Herrera clocked qualifying runs of 6.762 and 6.781-second elapsed times, respectively.
Herrera had a dominating regular season and then had his points lead essentially erased when the six-race Countdown to the Championship began.
Herrera, who is in his first season riding for the powerhouse Vance & Hines team, slipped up at the first race in the Countdown in Reading, Pa., losing in the second round.
He bounced back and won the betway NHRA Carolina Nationals last Sunday in Charlotte to regain the points lead – 52 points in front of reigning world champion Matt Smith.
“I have one of the baddest best bikes out there,” Herrera said. “So, actually, when I got here [Friday morning] and saw that he [Matt Smith] was running it [his Buell he won three world championships on], I was actually excited
because I feel it’s going to give us more competition. It’s more what Matt’s used to when he is comfortable on, and as far as power-wise riding-wise, I feel it’s going to be good. I think it’s good, like I said, or like I’ve said, I’m ready for it. I’m ready for anything.”
MORE MAGIC? - History awaits NHRA Pro Stock star Erica Enders, and she put herself in an even better position to make history Sunday.
Enders, the reigning Pro Stock world champion, who is one national event win away from becoming the all-time winningest female driver in NHRA history, qualified No. 1 at the Midwest Nationals in St. Louis.
Enders clocked a 6.549-second run at 209.75 mph Friday, and that held through Saturday’s two qualifying sessions at World Wide Technology
Raceway. She kept the No. 1 slot based on her mph. Matt Hartford had a 6.549-second lap in Q3 but came across the line at 207.75 mph.
“It definitely felt awesome, and I say this a lot, but I feed off Mark Ingersoll, who’s my crew chief,” Enders said about her Friday run. “I always ask him before I fire, ‘How’s the track look? Are we going to be good?’ He said, ‘We’re fixing to crush them.’ So, I really enjoy his confidence because it, in turn, gives me confidence.”
This is Enders's fifth No. 1 qualifier of the season and third in a row in the first three races of the six-race Countdown to the Championship. Enders, who drives the Elite Motorsports Camaro, now has 34 No. 1 qualifiers in her Pro Stock career. She arrived in St. Louis just four points behind points leader Hartford, and she trimmed the gap to two points with her five bonus markers through the first two qualifying sessions.
Enders was second in Q2 – behind Hartford – with her 6.571-second lap. In Q3, Enders clocked a 6.550-second run to get two bonus points. So,
Hartford kept the slim points lead.
Enders is tied with Angelle Sampey for most national event wins by a woman in NHRA history at 46. Enders won world championships in 2014-15, 2019-2020 and 2022. In the process, she has won 45 national events in Pro Stock to go with the Wally she won in Super Gas in 2004 in Houston, and she is tied with Sampey.
A win in St. Louis would not be surprising for Enders based on her past. No professional driver has more wins in St. Louis than Enders, who has six. Enders has won the title at the track the past four years in addition to 2012-13.
“This place has always been amazing to me. I had a win come early on when I just had one or two in Pro Stock here at St. Louis,” she said. “And to have the last four years in a row is pretty awesome. But it’s Mark’s home track, and he wants to swing hard here. All those baby points (in qualifying) matter when they tally them up at the end.”
Although Enders has had massive success in St. Louis, she’s acknowledged there’s no secret formula.
“It’s definitely not easy, and I can’t explain it,” Enders said. “... Vegas is another place that’s been really good to me. Bristol (Tenn.) has been great to me, and obviously St. Louis. But I really can’t explain it, but it does give us extra motivation, being that it’s Mark’s home track. And when we lost in Charlotte last week, I was pretty disgusted with myself, and he’s like, ‘This is our worst track, Erica. For the next ones that we’re going to -- St. Louis, Dallas, Vegas, Pomona -- we always do well there, so we’ll just throw this one out. There’s a lot of racing left.’ He wants to bring it home here at his home track.”
BOUNCING BACK - Funny Car point leader Robert Hight got off to a bad start at the NHRA Carolina Nationals, exploding an engine and falling to the back of the pack. There were no explosions this time, but the qualifying results were the same. When Hight didn’t make a clean run in Friday’s lone session, he fell back in the order and headed into Saturday as the 18th quickest of 18 entries.
Hight got it together on Saturday, vaulting from the bottom to the eighth spot. Entering the final session not yet qualified, Hight held on for a 3.953-second run at 323.89 mph that got the AAA team securely in the show at No. 8. The jump in performance puts Hight and the AAA Camaro up against Cruz Pedregon in the first round.
“You never want to be in that position, not being qualified with one run left. Especially in a fuel car, you never know what could happen. You could drop a cylinder; anything could happen. You have to believe in everybody, our crew chiefs, the crew guys, and me as the driver, and work together. We did that, and we got AAA qualified,” Hight said. “That would have been a bummer for the points leader not to be in. I think the way it was set up, Jimmy had it so that it would go down a dirt road. I didn’t think it would be in the top half, but all that matters is that we are racing tomorrow. It’s a new day, it’s race day, and anything can happen.”
HEY, IT’S MARK PAWUK! - Former Pro Stock standout turned Factory Stock Showdown frontrunner Mark Pawuk claimed the No. 1 qualifying position, marking his first top spot this season. Pawuk’s impressive qualifying run on Friday, clocking in at 7.712 seconds at 179.40 mph, secured him the leading position. Despite encountering some challenges during Saturday’s sessions, with times of 14.862 and 14.708 seconds, Pawuk remained optimistic about his chances in the eliminations.
“We have a really fast hot rod,” Pawuk said. “We just have to make consistent runs, and unfortunately, we haven’t this weekend. We have been moving forward as the weekend has gone on.”
Pawuk’s No. 1 seeding sets up an interesting first-round matchup against Conner Statler and his Janac Brothers Racing COPO Camaro.
The Flexjet Factory Showdown class witnessed significant improvements during Saturday’s qualifying. Stephen Bell and his Stanfield Racing Engines Chevy COPO, the winners at Norwalk, Ohio, climbed from No. 13 to No. 2 thanks to a strong performance in the second session, recording a time of 7.719 seconds compared to his initial 8.156-second pass. Point leader Aaron Stanfield also showcased his prowess by moving from No. 9 to No. 3 after delivering a 7.726-second run, following a 7.781-second pass earlier in the day.
“We changed motors, and it took a couple of runs for that one to wake up. It’s definitely awake now,” Stanfield commented on his improved performance. Expressing satisfaction, he added, “That run sets us up really well for eliminations, and we are trying to hold on to this point lead for these last three races. I feel really good about how we ran that last session.”
BOUNCE BACK - Usually, Brittany Force and her Monster Energy Top Fuel team are sure money when it comes to the Friday evening qualifying shot. She entered Saturday’s qualifying on the bubble with a 5.817 in the Q-1 session. She failed to improve in the second session and was pushed out of the field.
A last-ditch 3.791 at 330.72 put her in the No. 11 spot, where she will run Tony Schumacher in the first round.
“It was a dramatic final qualifying session for our Monster Energy / Flav-R-Pac team as we had one shot to get in the show after being bumped out. This team hasn’t been in such a tight position before, but we pulled it off and moved up to the 11th position after a 3.79 at 330,” Force said. “Good job to Dave Grubnic and this Monster Energy team for stepping it up under such enormous pressure. I’m looking forward to race day tomorrow.”
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK - THE DOMINATORS ARE STILL DOMINATING IN FRIDAY ST. LOUIS SESSION
KALITTA DOING KALITTA THINGS - Nothing to see here, folks, just Doug Kalitta catching up to his 2022 expectations. You know, those expectation where Kalitta was expected to win 15 races in a season and a championship the moment the iconic nitro tuner took over the crew chief role.
With much warmer conditions expected Saturday in the St. Louis area, Kalitta's 3.709-second elapsed time at 331.85-mph run is expected to hold, likely sending him into final eliminations as the top-seeded entry for the 53rd time in his career.
"Obviously, everybody's running really close, which we somehow snuck by them, so ... but hats off to Alan [Johnson] and Brian [Husen] and all my guys," Kalitta said. "They're really working their tails off on this car, and it's definitely showing."
Kalitta believes his team has longed for these kinds of performances to the point they've developed an appetite for continued success.
"We're all hungry," Kalitta said. "I always love coming to St. Louis. This is one of the places I used to always come and run my sprint cars over at [Tri-City Speedway in] Granite City and then over at this oval here. I just have a lot of great memories here. And yeah, it's just a great racing town."
For a driver who struggled last season to the tune of 11 first-round losses, the newfound domination is setting well with the Mac Tools-sponsored driver. He sighed relief in the top-end interview when the run held through Friday night's barrage of 3.7-second passes.
"I was relieved when we stayed No. 1," Kalitta said. "Maybe that was it. And then, the 3.70, so we just squeaked one by, which that's all it takes, really. So, the competition stuff and everybody's running good, so it was just real fortunate to pull off the low qualifier so far."
Kalitta, armed with a new swagger and a hot track awaiting Saturday, isn't worried about being displaced tomorrow ... or, at least, it seems that way.
"It'll definitely be a hell of a run tomorrow if someone can pull it off," Kalitta surmised.
IT WILL HOLD - They will be the first to tell you. Aaron Brooks is no Harry Hogge, the fictional crew chief portrayed in the movie "Days of Thunder." And Bob Tasca III certainly doesn't consider himself to be Cole Trickle.
But what they will say when one side speaks, the other listens. And when they do, success follows.
"I have a great chemistry with Todd [Okuhara] and Aaron," Tasca said, "and [Aaron] says, 'Listen, it's not easy, it's tricky. We're going to put you way on the inside.'
"And I like to kind of know they're thinking. So, the tree looks very different depending on where you are on the lane. And he said, 'Do the best you can to hug the center line until about half-track.' "
Tasca admits he can count the number of extended fingers on one fist the number of times he's left the starting line with the intention of hugging the centerline.
"I just did the best I could to keep it on the inside," Tasca explained. "I felt like it was really hooked up. And then, once I went past half-track, I kind of let it just drift back to the center of the racetrack, and it did exactly what they wanted it to do. So, as a driver, I've always said, 'The only thing I can do is make the car go slower.'
"Right? So you just want to do the best you can to typically keep it in the center of the track. But in this example, you want to be on the inside line, and I think the cars that take that inside line have a better chance of going down that left lane."
Speed secrets aside, Tasca's ability to follow directions led to a 3.852 elapsed time at 324.90 mph in his Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Mustang. When it likely holds through Saturday's qualifying, it will be his sixth No. 1 of the season.
"We've been working on this all season long," Tasca said. "Actually started in testing, and we had to have the setup to go out here and run with the big teams when the conditions were good. We definitely had flashes of that early in the season. We worked on it when we could when the conditions were good, and you just saw this car run really hard."
TUNING 101 - Bobby Bode apparently is concentrating on things other than his classes at Arizona State University, at least according to his dad, Bob Bode.
"It was running pretty good, and he lifted early," said crew chief and father Bob Bode. "There were sparks at the finish line; we were probably lean. He's been working on this tune-up from school for the last three or four weeks. He told me, 'Dad, I think I have it.' "
Bode thundered his way to the fifth-quickest Funny Car run of the first day, a 3.937 elapsed time at only 293.47.
"The kid has done good," Dad continued. "The kid is smart like gangbusters, and we love him."
MY HOUSE - World Wide Technology Raceway has belonged to Pro Stock’s Erica Enders over the years, and that continued Friday, as the reigning world champion went to the No. 1 spot with a run of 6.549 at 209.69 in her Johnson’s Horsepowered Garage/Melling Performance Chevrolet Camaro. If that holds, Enders would earn her third straight No. 1 qualifier, fifth this season and the 34th in her stellar career. She’s been nearly flawless in St. Louis, winning the past four years at the track to give her six overall. That’s the most in NHRA history at the facility, and a seventh win this weekend – and 47th in her career – would also give her the most wins by a female in NHRA history.
“It definitely felt awesome,” Enders said. “I say this a lot but I feed off of Mark Ingersoll, my crew chief. I really enjoy his confidence because it in turn gives me confidence. This place has always been amazing to me. To have the last four years in a row is pretty awesome. It's Mark's home track, and he wants to swing hard here. We're really excited.
“My sister and I have coined the phrase, 'Everything changes in St. Louis.' We'll just go ahead and hope that's going to be the outcome. When we went into the Countdown, we haven't won one yet, but I said three races in a row, in three weeks I'm going to know where I stand and maybe my stomach can relax a little bit. It's so fun coming here. I'm excited to have things change in St. Louis.”
WE GOT HISTORY - There was a time when 16-time champion John Force was at a crossroads in his career in St. Louis, and he almost quit racing and went home to Bell Gardens, California. That was 44 years ago, and instead, a broke Force opted to drive his underfunded Corvette Funny Car down a fogged-in track to collect money so he could continue racing.
A full 44 years later, Force is a brute in nitro racing.
Force and the PEAK Antifreeze and Coolant Chevrolet Camaro SS team landed in the provisional No. 3 spot Friday night at the NHRA Midwest Nationals at World Wide Technology Raceway. He handled his Chevy Camaro to a 3.914-second run at 325.06 mph but ended the run with an engine fire at the top end to land him in the No. 3 spot for the night.
“We’re two races into the Countdown, so if we're going to make that move, we've got to make that move now, you know what I'm saying? Crew chiefs Daniel Hood and Tim Fabrisi made a good run out there because they knew we needed to qualify, and they knew tomorrow was going to be hot. We wanted into the top half and that time should stay based on the weather tomorrow,” Force said. “It was fast. It got a little fire at the other end. Nothing serious, just a spark plug. In the dark, it looks more serious than it really is. It was a good night for this PEAK Chevy team. We’re OK to get ready for tomorrow and race day.”
MATT SMITH ON THE BUELL - Matt Smith is back in familiar surroundings this weekend. He's parked the Suzuki and is back aboard his championship-winning Buell, the one he rode to a sixth title in 2022.
Smith, who is contracted to ride a Suzuki this season, gained a reprieve from his contract when a series of misfortunes cost him his top three engines.
“At Charlotte [last weekend], we had two catastrophic engine failures on our Suzuki bike, and there was no way we could get the motors fixed in three days’ time,” Smith told nhra.com. “We called all the people we could get a hold of to try to get everything rushed, next-day air, and it just could not get done. I made the call to Chris Wheeler at Suzuki, and I got a grant to be able to ride my V-Twin for this race. I have to thank Suzuki for allowing me to do that. I’m running for a championship, and I will be back aboard the Suzuki for Dallas, Vegas and Pomona, but thank you to them for letting me do this. Hopefully, we can do a good job this weekend on the bike that we won the championship with the last three years.”
The first of the engines was hurt in Charlotte's final eliminations in Round One and then in the quarterfinal in a losing effort against points leader Gaige Herrera.
“I was out of motors,” Smith continued. “I couldn’t take anything from Jianna [Evaristo, MSR teammate] because she’s running for a championship, and that’s not right. This is the only thing I could do right now. We next-day’d heads to get welded up, and they’re going on to get CNC’d, and hopefully everything will be back home when I get there from St. Louis. We’ll put the stuff back together, dyno it, and have everything ready to go racing. We’ve been fast with our Suzuki this year, and I think we’ll be fine.”
THAT DOG IS HUNTING - Greg Anderson's Charlotte win did him a world of good. He now has his HendrickCars.com Chevrolet Camaro back in the thick of the championship hunt.
“I know I’m back in the fight, and I’m going to give it everything I’ve got," Anderson said. "All these cars are fast and it seems like everyone has stepped up when we got to the playoffs. You better find something special and we were back on the dyno trying to find something for St. Louis. If not, you’re going to get waxed and that’s how fast everything changes in this class.”
Anderson proved the old dog has plenty of bite when he needs it, and he needed it in beating the five-time champion Erica Enders in the quarterfinals. She's only the tip of the iceberg when he faces racers such as points leader Matt Hartford, Dallas Glenn, Troy Coughlin Jr., Kyle Koretsky, Aaron Stanfield and Deric Kramer.
“There’s so many people that can win in this class, and you can absolutely get your butt whipped in any round you go up there,” Anderson said. “That’s what makes Pro Stock so great, and that’s why it feels so good when a win light comes on. It’s going to be an exciting Countdown the rest of the way. We’re back in the game and back in the hunt with four races to go, and it’s going to be exciting. You’re only as good as your last race, and you’ve got to appreciate every opportunity you have.”
Anderson ended up third quickest in Friday's qualifying with a 6.560, 208.81.
NOW, THAT'S A FIRST IMPRESSION - Top Alcohol Dragster standout Cody Kron made his Top Fuel competition debut behind the wheel of a dragster fielded by Larry Dixon Racing. He kept his foot in the throttle en route to a 3.819 elapsed time at 319.07, which puts him 10th headed into Saturday's final sessions of qualifying.
The 19-year-old rookie, who learned under the tutelage of two-time NHRA champion Frank Hawley, is racing this weekend with the support of Rio Energy and JBS Equipment.
“I am beyond excited for my first chance to race Top Fuel. It’s been my dream since I was eight years old and first got behind the wheel of an NHRA Jr. Dragster,” Krohn shared. “My support system throughout this journey has been incredible, and I’m so thankful for this opportunity made possible by my parents.”
Krohn has been a prize Frank Hawley Drag Racing School student, earning multiple NHRA competition licenses, including Super Comp, Top Alcohol Dragster, Top Alcohol Funny Car, Nostalgia Top Fuel, and Nostalgia Funny Car. In February 2023, Krohn procured the highest pinnacle of drag racing license with his Top Fuel credentials.
Krohn knows how to race on race day, having earned three runner-up finishes this season thus far in Top Alcohol Dragster.
“Cody is the whole package — bright, young, and enthusiastic,” Hawley said. “He displays driving skills beyond his age and experience, and I can’t wait to see him compete against the pros in St. Louis.”
HEAD START - There are at least two cars in nitro racing this weekend getting a jump on October's Breast Cancer Awareness campaign -- Cruz Pedregon and Antron Brown.
Pedregon and his primary sponsor, Snap-on, are showcasing the work of the Pink Fund (U.S.) and Kelly Shires Foundation (Canada) with a new, pink “Socket to Breast Cancer” paint scheme for the Snap-on Dodge SRT Hellcat.
“This cause is meaningful to me since our family, like most families, has someone we care about who has had breast cancer. Having Countdown-level attention on our car that’s sharing the news of real help for the other part of the fight for breast cancer patients is as important to me as moving up in the Countdown points,” Cruz said. “Fans will see our pink Funny Car and hopefully find out more about the Pink Fund and Kelly Shires Foundation that help breast cancer patients meet non-medical expenses while they are undergoing treatment. They don’t do research … they provide grants when they’re needed most, during treatment, for things like transportation, and help with bills if money gets tight. Plus, they’re a great source of information, one my sister Dora counted on when she was going through her successful treatment.”
Snap-on and its franchisees who participated in sales promotions over the past eight years have donated more than $1 million to support these organizations and their important work. This is critical since almost 300,000 new breast cancer cases will be diagnosed this year alone.
Brown's Matco Tools dragster isn't in full pink this weekend, but his message is clear. The 'Tools for the Cause' livery during the month of October to benefit the Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF) will generate 15% of the sales from select TFC items sold will be donated directly to BCRF. Since 'Tools for the Cause' began in 2012, Matco has donated over $2 million dollars to breast cancer research.
WHO’S ON THE PINK BIKE? - The Miller Light helmet ought to be a dead giveaway.
With Chip Ellis unable to make it to the NHRA Midwest Nationals, Joey Gladstone is riding the Denso-sponsored Pink Buell entry for Matt Smith Racing. It's the bike normally ridden by Angie Smith. Smith is on the bike that Ellis rode to a runner-up finish at Reading.
Ellis is back in Georgia, attending a boat race with his daughter, who has made a name for herself in that arena.
As of now, Gladstone's role is a blocker for Matt Smith Racing. While it worked to perfection for Smith in Reading, it didn't in Charlotte. This weekend's event will determine whether they bring in one for Dallas and beyond.