MILESTONES ACHIEVED AS KALITTA, HIGHT, HARTFORD, M. SMITH TAKE HOME WINS
Doug Kalitta needed to string four consecutive race-day victories together. After 1,079 days, he finally sealed the deal, beating newly christened point leader Steve Torrence in the Top Fuel final round in a rain-delayed Monday race..
Joining Kalitta in the winner’s circle at the Pep Boys NHRA Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway in Reading, PA., were Robert Hight (Funny Car), Matt Hartford (Pro Stock), and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle).
Kalitta extracted a bit of revenge on Torrence in the Top Fuel final, as it was the Capco-sponsored driver who beat him earlier in the season at the NHRA event in Seattle. Interestingly enough, Kalitta has raced Torrence in his last three final round appearances, and prior to Seattle, the two raced in 2020 during the finals of the Midwest Nationals outside of St. Louis.
“This is huge. To get that monkey off my back and get that 50th win, now we can concentrate on the next five (playoff) races,” Kalitta said. “Getting this victory, that’s been big on my list. It was a great job for my team, and I’m real proud of their effort. To run like that and go in the 60s in the final it shows their talent, and I couldn’t be happier. I love running here and my guys worked their tails off. It never hurts to have a thrash and I’m just really proud of this team.”
Kalitta’s triumph was no “just enough” victory as he recorded a 3.662 second elapsed time at 336.99 mph in his Mac Tools dragster to beat Torrence. This win propelled him to third place in the championship standings.
Along the way, Kalitta beat Josh Hart, Shawn Langdon, and Leah Pruett before the final round against Torrence was postponed to Monday due to inclement weather.
With his appearance in the final round, Torrence secured his fifth finals appearance this year and his overall 86th. He now holds the points lead, with a seven-point advantage over Justin Ashley.
Kalitta wasn’t the only driver playing in milestone territory as Hight was competing in his 100th career final round, dating back to 2005. He sealed the deal behind the wheel of his Cornwell Tools-sponsored Camaro Funny Car, beating Chad Green.
Hight was like a bracket racer on nitro, having qualified with a 3.87, ran another 3.87 in eliminations, then a 3.86 and two 3.85s. The victory marked the 64th of his career and third of 2023.
“This car is running good at the right time, and we did exactly what we needed to do today,” Hight said. “But we have to stay focused on the task at hand. We learned a lot of things, but we have to keep working and keep our heads down because it’s not going to get any easier. You’re probably going to have to win three, maybe four times in the Countdown to win a championship, so we can’t get too carried away yet. It was a job well done by this team this weekend, and we’re excited about that, but it takes major work to win a championship.
“That race against Hagan, when it’s that close, it can go in either direction. You’ve got to be mentally prepared and ready against all these guys. We’re thrilled to win, and we can use it as a confidence-builder, but we have to continue to work hard.”
The win vaulted Hight into the points lead by three points over Ron Capps.
In Pro Stock, for Hartford, just making it through the weekend was a milestone. Seven days earlier, he found himself in the hospital with appendicitis. He was cleared to race, only to find himself with an ornery race car that would only generate the 13th quickest pass in Pro Stock qualifying.
A trip to a local body shop was all that he needed to fix what was diagnosed as a wiring issue.
Hartford ultimately fought his way to the finals by defeating Greg Anderson, Camrie Caruso, and defending world champion Erica Enders. In the championship round, he beat Kyle Koretsky, securing his second consecutive win and claiming the points lead for the first time in his career.
“The last week and a half has not been fun until today,” Hartford said. “Our team had to work harder this weekend than they have in years, and they really pulled together. Things went our way, and we had a really good day today. We’ve got a good car and a car that can run well in all conditions.
“It was a grueling weekend for everybody, and the emotions were high. Our team never gave up and now there’s 20 win lights left in the year. If I just keep doing my job and keep my head on straight, I think we walk out of here with a white (world championship) hat after five more races.”
Koretsky, racing at the track his family owns, reached the championship round for the second time this season and eighth time overall, thanks to round wins against Jerry Tucker, Aaron Stanfield, and Troy Coughlin Jr.
Drag racing has long been regarded as a team sport, and for six-time Pro Stock Motorcycle champion Matt Smith, the camaraderie was on full display.
Smith beat teammate and designated blocker Chip Ellis in the final for his second consecutive race win of the season and put him into the point lead. Prior to that, Smith beat Chris Bostick, Marc Ingwersen and teammate Jianna Evaristo to reach the final round and picked up his 38th career victory a round later. With five races remaining, Smith now holds a 17-point lead over Herrera.
“Today was exciting. We’ve won races on Monday before and we pulled it off today,” Smith said. “All in all, we had a great weekend. Personally, my bike still isn’t the bike I need out here to win a seventh championship. We just have to get my bike better. My bike isn’t 60-footing the way it needs to. We know we have really good power; even though we qualified fourth, we’re still way behind.
“(But) we’ve won six championships because we play our cards right, and we’re smart and we do what we need to do. We brought a fourth bike (to this race) and that was our goal. When you don’t have the best stuff, you have to bring other stuff in to try to learn. All in all, that’s why we brought that bike to Reading and Chip knocked out some people that we needed him to knock out.”
Ellis, who qualified second and was hired by Matt Smith Racing to ride a team bike during the Countdown, took down Cory Reed, Eddie Krawiec and Hector Arana Jr. to reach the championship round.
NHRA’s highest profile Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series racer, Tony Stewart, scored a double victory in winning the Top Alcohol Dragster title and ascending into the championship points lead. Driving his Mobil 1 McPhillips Racing dragster, Stewart’s victory in the final round against Madison Payne came after his win at the divisional event at Maple Grove Raceway a month earlier.
“This is huge. This is McPhillips’ home track, so a lot of friends and family in the pit this weekend,” Stewart said. “To win for Rich and Richie (McPhillips) and all their friends and family here, a win is always special, but to do it under these circumstances at a home race for them is that much more special.
“I’ve always liked the opportunity to hopefully get a point lead, at least be in the lead, even if it’s just by one point. The fact that you’re in the lead, I feel like, carries weight. To have a weekend like we had, we battled through a lot to get here. This is huge. There’s not, but a handful of races left this year. We’re trying to make the most out of every one of them. Getting maximum points (this weekend) is a huge deal for us.”
The NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series will continue with the 15th annual betway NHRA Carolina Nationals at zMAX Dragway in Charlotte from September 22-24.