2021 NHRA U.S. NATIONALS - SPORTSMAN NOTEBOOK
SUNDAY NOTEBOOK - AND WE ARE FINISHED
SAVING THE BEST FOR LAST - The Constant Aviation Factory Stock Showdown final round closed out the 67th annual Dodge//SRT NHRA U.S. Nationals with Jesse Alexandra, of West Bend, Wisconsin, defeating point leader Aaron Stanfield in an epic final round. Alexandra has competed in the Factory Stock Showdown class for four seasons, and this is his first career win. It took five round wins today but Alexandra realized a life-long dream of winning on the NHRA’s biggest stage.
"I can’t believe it,” exclaimed Alexandra, moments after his big win. “It has been a roller coaster of ups and downs. We just had a great hot rod today. We have a great team behind us. I must thank my family and David and Ray Barton. All the guys back at the shop working hard for us. It is just crazy that it all came together today.”
In the first round Alexandra and his Chevrolet COPO Camaro defeated Mark Pawuk in his brand-new Dodge Challenger Drag Pak on the strength of a .025 reaction time that gave him a lead he never relinquished getting the finish line first with a 7.892 second, 170.36 mph run over Pawuk’s 7.973 second pass. Right after that round win Alaxandra took out Denver winner Stephen Bell with an .011 reaction time combined with a 7.922 second run was enough to advance him to the quarterfinals.
“We were chasing some bugs earlier in the weekend,” said Alexandra. “They started to get worked out as the day went on. It just all came together, and I still can’t believe it.”
Racing the Topeka national event winner and current bounty driver John Cerbone, Alexandra was able to get his third win light of the day and pick up the $1,000 bounty. He once again grabbed a starting line advantage and never gave up the lead. In the lane beside him, Cerbone had his hands full as his red and black Saw Mill Auto Camaro got loose and he scuffed the wall in a losing effort. The semifinal contest for Alexandra saw him outrun Anthony Troyer. It was a consistent 7.854 second run at 177.04 mph that set up his first career final round against Gatornationals winner Stanfield.
The final was over as soon as Alexandra leapt off the starting line with a .015 reaction time and Stanfield severely spun the tires of his Camaro and lost almost all momentum off the line. As Alexandra crossed the finish line 7.841 seconds later tears were already welling up in his eyes.
“I got out after the final and I almost fell on the floor,” said an emotional Alexandra. “I started crying. It was just nuts. This has been four years chasing this Wally. I couldn’t have done it without everyone’s help. It is just crazy that I am standing here as a U.S. Nationals champion.”
THE WINNERS ARE ... - Sunday's final results from the 67th annual Dodge//SRT NHRA U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis. The race is the 13th of 20 in the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series:
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK - THE DODGE HEMI SHOOTOUT TURNS 20 YEARS OLD
COMELLA GETS HIS FIRST - Longtime Dodge Hemi Shootout racer Steve Comella made his first win in the showcase event a milestone one.
Comella defeated four-time event champion Jim Daniels Jr. in Friday’s Dodge Hemi Shootout at the Dodge NHRA U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis.
He saved the event low elapsed time for the final, running 8.364 seconds at 161.17 mph to beat his Daniels’ 8.42, 158.02.
“We struggled all day; we were chasing it all day,” Comella explained. .” This morning and eliminations, we won with a .35, and I thought, ‘We’re good.”
“We’re just going to make basically qualifying laps. And then the wheels came off, so to speak. I’ve been underneath that car since eight or 9:30 this morning. And I just said, ‘let’s just keep working, keep working, keep working.”
Comella battled head-to-head against Steve Kent and inaugural event winner Bucky Hess and had a semifinal solo run when defending event winner Stephen Yantus III wasn’t able to make the start due to a mechanical issue.
“Got lucky against Bucky,” Comella said. “That should not have gone my way. The semi pass was awesome. That was right where I wanted to be. A .001 on the tree a little too tight, but I thought recent at night, I thought the way I was going to see the tree was going to be fine. So, I felt comfortable with ... as far as the car goes, I felt comfortable coming into the final.”
In the final against Daniels and his vintage ’68 Dodge Dart, Comella overcame his opponent’s early lead by chasing him down and turning on the win lights with a 0.0202-second margin of victory.
“At the moment, I’m exhausted, but this means a lot,” said Comella, who previously earned two runner-up finishes in overall NHRA Super Stock competition. “We’ve been chasing this for a while. Last year kind of felt like a stone in the shoe all year, so we decided to really kind of put everything into [this race] this year. It was a lot of work, and here it (the trophy) is.”
WELCH LEADS THE PACK - Joseph Welch got his first Constant Aviation Factory Stock Showdown low qualifying effort after running a 7.776 elapsed time, 119.95 miles per hour in the third qualifying session. His run marked the quickest qualifying run of the season.
Welch will receive a competition bye in the first round behind the wheel of his white and blue Dodge Challenger Drag Pak. Topeka winner John Cerbone will head into race day with the Constant Aviation Factory Stock Showdown $1,000 bounty on his head. Arthur Kohn of Richmond, Texas, will be the first competitor with a shot at collecting the bounty when eliminations get underway on Sunday.
Point leader and defending U.S. Nationals champion Aaron Stanfield is the No. 8 qualifier and will be racing for his second win of the season. Stanfield won the season-opening Gatornationals and was the No. 1 qualifier at the Dodge Mile-High Nationals.
Two-time consecutive runner-up Leah Pruett will race David H Davies in the first round in a No. 12 versus No. 13 match-up. Davies is also the Chief Operating Officer of Constant Aviation, the sponsor of the Factory Stock Showdown.
THE GRAND STAGE - Mike Bucher worked hard to get his Top Fuel license, but on the grand stage of the Dodge NHRA U.S. Nationals, he was content to push the grand achievement to the side for Indianapolis.
Bucher qualified for the Jegs All-Stars by claiming the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series North Central Region title in the Top Alcohol Dragster division. He is driving the Robin Samsel's A/Fuel Dragster this weekend.
"Four years of A/Fuel is what prepared me for Top Fuel," Bucher explained. "I couldn't have done Top Fuel without this, but this car flies, and the Samsels are great people. I love them. And last year we had four races. We had a final, semi, semi and a win, won the division, and got JEGS Allstars."
Bucher entered the event fully aware he's capable of winning a Jegs All-Star crown.
"This is a fast car," Bucher said. "There's actually a different kind of pressure when you're in a car that can win. The only way you lose is if the driver screws up, and I don't want to mess anything up, but I'm just grateful to be here. And I'm here. I want to honor the Lord. I want to have a good attitude win or lose. And the ministry for me is the most important, which you already know that."
Bucher plans to take advantage of the grand stage to promote his passions, his faith, and a movement he's deeply embedded in, Hope over Heroin.
"It's a point where people associate Hope Over Heroin with me, and every addict or relative of an addict will come and talk to me," Bucher said. "And so they tell me their story. I pray with them, and I'm having an impact. It's getting bigger and bigger each year."
"The success opens the door for the message to go out to more people. It's not about personal glory; it's not about winning; it's about people seeing the message. And so if we win, that's going to be a bigger stage to put out what I'm here for. And that's really the issue, and the Lord's in control and I would be grateful, I won St. Louis last year; it was like a dream, but I knew it was, I literally got on that, I knelt on the car, put my head down and cried. Not because I won, but because my Father in Heaven, let me win."
PACKED HOUSE FOR FACTORY STOCK - The biggest race of the NHRA season featured the biggest qualified field of Constant Aviation Factory Stock Showdown racers with a 32-car field covering two days of eliminations. This season has seen new winners at every national event.
John Cerbone of Yorkton Heights, New York, will enter the race as the most recent winner and carrying the $1,000 bounty into eliminations behind the wheel of his Saw Mill Auto Chevrolet COPO Camaro.
"I head into The U.S. Nationals feeling the same way I do at every race; you just have to get into the field," said Cerbone. "You have to be in the field to have a shot at winning. We ran Indy in the Factory Stock [SP1] Showdown last year, and Indy is a special deal. It is a fun race, and it is a little longer race. I have been racing with Pro Stock's Kenny Delco at Indy for decades, so this is a cool event. Everybody wants to win the U.S. Nationals and I am no different. You want to be able to say, 'I won Indy.'"
The past two races have seen Leah Pruett race to runner-up finishes with her Don Schumacher Racing Dodge Challenger Drag Pak. In Topeka, she came up just short of victory to Cerbone, and at the Dodge Mile-High Nationals, Stephen Bell got to the finish line ahead of the 2018 U.S. Nationals Factory Stock Showdown winner.
"I like our odds of capturing another U.S. Nationals win for our Dodge Challenger Mopar Drag Pak team," said Pruett, who won the event in 2018. "It will not be easy, but we have proven we are capable. I can't think of a much better feeling to be in than when the tides turn from not only being around people that are rooting for you but betting on you. There is a difference, and I like our odds, and I love our people."
THURSDAY NOTEBOOK - IT'S THE EVE OF THE HEMI SHOOTOUT; WHILE THE PARTY IS FULLY UNDERWAY
TWO DECADES OF THRILLS - When the Dodge Hemi Shootout, a specialty event showcasing Hemi-powered musclecars of the late 1960s, hits the track at 11 AM EST, it will mark two decades it has served as a showcase event at the Dodge NHRA U.S. Nationals.
David Hakim, a longtime Chrysler historian and administrator for the program, was the brainchild for the program, which began in 2001.
“At that time, Mopar was a presenting sponsor and Mopar realized the ’68 Superstock Hemi Darts and Cudas are iconic to the brand,” Hakim explained. “Mopar [had] just released the new, or the revised Hemi block, the Gen2 Hemi block and the head. So it was a great way, not just to market the brand and the brand’s illustrious history, but to market the parts that Mopar made for these cars.”
In the two decades that the program has existed, many of its competitors went from being just Super Stock race cars to fabricating purpose-built classic Mopars to participate in the big money endeavor. To have been a part of the program since ground zero provides Hakim with a source of pride.
“It’s quite an honor to be a part of the Hemi challenge since day one,” Hakim said. “Back in 2001 I remember working with NHRA and the Mopar marketing folks to bring this program together, and it’s really exciting. We had no idea how well it would take off.”
The success can be attributed to its participants’ willingness to go the extra mile in the name of showmanship.
“Bucky Hess won the first one, and coming up the return road in his Hemi Cuda, he was whacking the throttle, and the fans were cheering,” Hakim recalled. “It took everyone by surprise, even the NHRA, that this program is successful. It’s one of the best programs to support grassroots racer.”
Hakim has seen competitors come and go in twenty years, but its biggest stars - the Hemi Barracuda and Dodge Dart - have never wavered in reinventing themselves annually.
“In 2018, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of when these cars were built,” Hakim explained. “And these cars, when they released in spring of 1968, they took Super Stock by storm. We had so many iconic drivers behind the wheels of these cars, Dick Landy, Sox and Martin, Arlen Vanke, so many, and they’ve always been a fan favorite.
“The fact is, here we are 2021 and we’re racing cars that were built back in the late 1960s, yet they’ve been updated, they’ve been improved. I compare these cars to a B-52 Bomber. The B-52 has been around since the 1950s but keeps getting updates, and it’s a great weapon. This is how these cars are. The overall package was fantastic and over the years they’ve been improved upon massively.”
STILL SEARCHING - Justin Lamb, whose first national event victory was in Top Comp at the SPORTSnationals in Fontana in 2006, has claimed 27 wins across a total of six categories. He’s raced two cars for most of his career, and most commonly, he has been devoted to Super Stock and Stock Eliminator.
The devotion to door cars has paid off by way of five Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series championships – three in Super Stock (2015, 2017, 2018) and two in Stock (2013, 2017). Lamb also has eight division titles earned in NHRA’s Pacific Division across four categories, Top Comp (2003), Comp Eliminator (2011, 2012), Stock (2013, 2017, 2019), and Super Stock (2015, 2017).
Still, he’s not satisfied.
Of those accomplishments, he’s yet to seal the deal at the NHRA U.S. Nationals.
“In Sportsman drag racing, winning Indy is the one thing I’ve really wanted but haven’t been able to get done,” said Lamb. “I’ve never even been close. There is still a lot that I haven’t accomplished in my racing career, but winning this race is very high on the checklist.”
Lamb finds himself closer to pulling off the feat as he survived the first round in both Stock and Super Stock.
SOMETHING DIFFERENT - Rodger Brogdon commissioned Jerry Haas to build him a two-door B/Altered Automatic, two-door 1966 Chevy II wagon because he wanted something different. His objective was achieved with an exclamation mark, as he made his NHRA competition debut on Thursday at the NHRA U.S. Nationals.
“Everybody builds Camaros or whatever the latest hottest thing is, and my dad and my uncle actually had a Super Stock station wagon like this back in the 70s and early 80s,” Brogdon said. “I drove that a little bit, and I was trying to figure out something different to build for Comp and I decided to do this. It’s cool, like a nostalgia car in Competition eliminator.”
Brogdon admits he got giddy at times when he watched the progress of the wagon during construction.
“Every time Jerry or John would call me and tell me the ideas and stuff they were coming up with, I just turned them loose,” Brogdon admitted. “I said, “Whatever y’all think it needs.”
“I’ve always been that way. Do what you think is best for the car, for me and what looks the coolest.”
While a 500-inch Pro Stock engine powers the car, the chassis underneath is not interchangeable with a Pro Stocker.
“It’s all custom-built, with the chassis two inches longer in the wheelbase, h105 inches. They actually bought a 66’ station wagon to use a lot of different parts, like the quarter panels and things from molds to make the carbon fiber with. The top’s been chopped 3 inches, 6 inches out of the middle, nose is stretched about 10 inches, and it’s about two inches off the ground.”
Brogdon was originally supposed to debut the wagon at the NHRA Heartland Nationals in Topeka, Kan., but nearly burned the car to the ground in testing days before the event.
Brogdon was testing the car in Houston and admittedly was not attaining the initial success he hoped for. Getting past the first 30 feet proved to be a challenge in the first test session.
“Got ready to make one more run, and we started it up; we messed with the fuel pressure a little bit,” Brogdon said. “But when I turned it off it blew the whole top off the intake manifold and it was the biggest fire I’ve ever seen, from the inside. It was not as bad as I thought it was, but we went through three fire extinguishers and I took my Chilly Willy. I made a fire hose out of it and We finally put the fire out.”
Brogdon admitted the incident could have been worst than it was.
“I’m just glad the front end wasn’t on,” Brogdon said. “The front end was off, of course, and the hood scoop was off. Otherwise, I don’t think we would have got the fire out. It might have just burned to the ground. So, to look at it and find something positive out of it, yeah, it could have been a whole lot worse.”
Brogdon got in only one run during Friday’s two Comp sessions and will enter Friday’s eliminations as the No. 41 qualifier.
COMP FIELD IS SET - Competition Eliminator had two runs on Thursday to set the field. In the end, it was the Honda-powered I/Dragster of Andrew Holt setting the pace for the 41-car field.
Holt ran a 6.523 elapsed time, -.702 under the index to snag the No. 1 seed.
Bill Skillman’s Factory Stock/Super Modified Mustang was second with a 7.806, -0.684, followed by Frank Aragona’s J/Altered Automatic ’32 Bantam, which turned in a 7.360, -0.670.
Past NHRA Pro Stock champion Bo Butner was fourth with a 7.785,
-0.665. The D/Dragster Automatic of Doug Engels was fourth with a 7.344, -0.656.
TOP ALCOHOL HITS THE TRACK - A full complement of alcohol cars to hit the track in Thursday’s opening of Top Alcohol Dragster and Top Alcohol Funny Car sessions.
Karen Stalba set the pace as she ran a 5.188, 279.15, beating out Jasmine Salinas’ 5.206, 281.01.
Shawn Cowie was third with a 5.209, 277.72, finishing ahead of Matthew Cummings, who recorded a 5.214, 276.69.
Rachel Meyer rounded out the top five with a 5.249, 276.52.
There are 21 Top Alcohol Dragsters on the property, and interestingly enough, five of the top seven drivers after the provisional sessions are female.
There are 17 Funny Cars on the ground, and the quickest flopper belonged to Sean Bellemeur, who ran a 5.470, 268.49. Annie Whiteley was second quickest with a 5.480, 268.92, while Kyle Smith was third with a 5.505.
Chris Marshall registered a 5.507, while Brian Hough rounded out the top five with a 5.508.
The Alcohol divisions will have two more sessions to set their 16-car fields.
LOTS OF HOLES? - Several of the Dodge Hemi Challenge participants also took part in Thursday’s Super Stock final eliminations. There’s a strong likelihood there will be several no-shows in Friday’s Super Stock eliminations as Gary Wolkwitz, Jim Pancake, Joe Comella, Stephen Hebert, Benny Kimberly, and Jim Daniels.
WEDNESDAY NOTEBOOK - MEET WEDNESDAY; IT'S THE NEW THURSDAY AT THE BIG GO
THE BIG THREE FERRIS WHEEL - Stock Eliminator traditionally holds its annual class elimination program on Thursday, but due to the shortened schedule for this season, the race within a race was moved up to Wednesday, the first day of the event. After two qualifying sessions, the Stockers went right into class eliminations.
Out of the gate, Jim Hale’s ’67 Plymouth Belvedere wagon was the first to go more than a second under his index, taking the provisional No. 1 qualifying spot with an 11.596 elapsed time -1.054 under the K/Stock Automatic standard. Then it was Jim Marshall’s H/Stock Automatic Nova upping the ante with a -1.087, 11.063.
In the end, it was Stick-Shift Combo winner Gary Summers in his U/Stock ’77 Mustang running away with it, recording a 13.544 elapsed time, -1.106 under the index to lead the 128-car field into Thursday’s final eliminations.
WORNER IS THE TOP SUPER STOCKER - Bryan Worner scored the daily double during the first day of the NHRA U.S. Nationals by not only winning the Super Stock/J Automatic class title but scoring the No. 1 seed in the 128-car Super Stock field.
The defending NHRA Super Stock champion ran a 9.859 elapsed time during the Q-2 session, running -1.141 under the index. Factory Super Stock/C racer was second in his 2019 Mustang with an 8.541, -1.109 performance. Stephen Belanger was third with his GT/MA Firebird at -1.075, 10.125.
NOTHING LIKE A HEAVY CHEVY - Jimmy Denham’s lumbering 1965 Impala earned a berth in Thursday’s Super Stock eliminations as he stopped the clocks with an 11.276 elapsed time, running -0.574 under the Super Stock/M Automatic index.
TAYLOR PULLING DOUBLE-DUTY - Four-time NHRA world champion Jeff Taylor is pulling double-duty for Team Jegs and the Coughlin Family at Indy. He’s behind the wheel of Jeg Coughlin Jr.’s Dodge Challenger Drag Pak Stock entry and Clay Coughlin’s Chevy Cobalt Super Stocker. Taylor’s previous Indy wins came in Stock, Super Stock, and Comp.
“Now I’m only two wins away from my 50th one, so why not make it happen this weekend in Indy, the biggest race of them all?” Taylor said. “Sounds like a good plan until you factor in the 127 other drivers in each category that don’t care one bit about my feelings.
“It’s super special to be in an elite group of racers who have won Indy. I always call it an endurance race because for the Sportsman classes, you have to be here Tuesday through, hopefully, Monday night, if you want to win. The key to winning here is to stay focused for that long. A lot of people tucker out after three, four days and start thinking about home and work. It can be mentally draining.
“I’d love to get another win for the Coughlin family. It’s always a pleasure to race with the entire JEGS team. These guys know what it takes to win, they make sure you have it, and everyone is pulling in the same direction. It makes it a lot of fun.”
Taylor was No. 57 after two sessions in Super Stock, running -.785 under the Super Stock/C Modified index. Over in Stock, he was -0.880 under the Factory Stock/D index.
LEADER OF THE HERD - Steve Comella heads into Friday's Dodge Hemi Shootout as the No. 1 qualifier in his 1968 Barracuda with an 8.431, 159.04. The Hemi cars won't hit the track again until Friday, unless they decide to run in Thursday's Super Stock final eliminations.
PURPOSE BUILT - If Lynn Engels has been asked once, he’s been asked a thousand times. “Is your car an ex-Modified Eliminator racer?”
Fair question, Engels assesses since an overwhelming majority of 1967 Corvettes hit the track back in the day did run in a Gas or Modified Production classification.
Not Engle’s South Dakota-based A/Stock Stingray, which he rescued from a life of bracket racing.
“I bought it about ten years ago,” Engels said. “It was raced as a bracket car and I decided to turn it into an A Stocker. A lot of the work was already done, and I’ve just kind of been fine-tuning on it.”
Because the car was not a former Modified car, it made Engels A/Stock decision natural.
“I probably would have ended up in Super Stock because usually they were narrowed up and stuff like that,” Engels explained.
Engel’s car was built specifically to run with a manual transmission and runs a 427-cubic inch engine with three - two-barrel carburetors.
Engels said the old Corvette is a blast to drive regardless of what it was or wasn’t in its past life.
“It’s a fun car to drive,” Engels said. “I get as much satisfaction out of driving it, as much as I get out of hearing how much people love it.”
Engels qualified No. 29 in the 128-car field, wheelstanding and shifting his way to a 9.970, -.980 under the A/Stock index.
IT’S MCFARLAND’S WORLD - Every year at the NHRA U.S. Nationals, the A/Stock competitors collect gifts and prizes to award to the winner of the traditional top of the food chain of classes in Stock Eliminator.
Caleb McFarland returned to the winner’s circle for the first time since 2018, stopping the Ford of Bill Feist in the final round.
McFarland is the most successful competitor in the A/Stock class eliminations, and Wednesday’s win marked his fifth class eliminations title since 2014. He has been in the finals of the A/S Shootout consecutively since 2014.
ADDED PRESTIGE - Not only can a sportsman racer win the prestigious U.S. Nationals title, but they can also pick up a Jegs All-Star crown. Two weeks ago, Top Alcohol Funny Car racer Kyle Smith picked up his first national crown at the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals. A final-round performance at the Dallas regional event was followed by back-to-back LODRS titles in Topeka and Great Bend, ensuring a berth in Saturday’s Jegs All-Star competition.
“In my opinion, we really started to turn the corner in St. Louis last year,” said Smith. “We had been fighting the car, and although it was starting to run good, we were a little stuck. But we found an issue [with the fuel system], and that changed the trajectory of the end of the season and going into this year. Over the winter, we made some upgrades and really tried to focus on the areas where we thought we were leaving something on the table.”
Smith is the Central Region’s Top Alcohol Funny Car representative.
“Bob [McCosh] had a stranglehold on our region, and Kris Hool was one round ahead of me [to qualify for the Allstars],” said Smith. “I have a lot of respect for them both. The Topeka regional was the last event we could claim, and we just decided to go and do our best and let the cards fall where they may. Honestly, it’s kind of a shock. There are guys that have raced out here for 40 years and never qualified for the Allstars, so to be able to do it in our third year is just really special.”
Perhaps one of the more unusual pieces of Smith’s story is that the only opponent he has ever come up against in the final round is McCosh. To date, Smith has won four of their five meetings (three regional, one national).
“I think it’s a testament to both of our teams, and we both really spend a lot of time in preparation and hard work,” said Smith. “He’s become a friend and mentor, and I think we respect the same things about one another – we don’t make a lot of mistakes because every time the car goes out there, it’s ready. And we don’t leave anything on the table.”
For now, Smith is focused on preparing solidly for a race that he has never attempted before at a track where he and his father have no data on which to lean.
“It’s kind of a surreal feeling to finally be going to Indy. I’m really excited because I feel like we’ve already done more than any of us thought possible,” expressed Smith, who was No. 6 in the national Top Alcohol Funny Car standings after competing in just six races. “I’m looking forward to the challenges ahead and seeing where we can finish the year.”