THE 1600: A REGULAR SEASON IN REVIEW - FROM GAINESVILLE TO INDY
#1 - NHRA GATORNATIONALS
1. - Mike Salinas proves he’s not messing around – The San Jose, Calif., businessman has far too much on his corporate agenda to travel across the country just to spend money and time cavalierly with his Scrappers Dragster. He came to Florida this weekend to win. He nearly hit the Daily Double, finishing as runner-up in Saturday’s Pep Boys Top Fuel All-Star Call-Out bonus race. He scored impressively enough, parlaying his self-described “phenomenal” and “world-record-number” testing results into his eighth career victory and command of the standings as the Camping World Drag Racing Series heads west to Phoenix in two weeks for the Arizona Nationals. He and his crew have a unique relationship. After what he called a “pretty disappointing” weekend last November at the Finals at Pomona, Calif. – where he cemented a respectable top-five finish – Salinas set the tone for the offseason. He told the team, “You’ve got a long offseason. Go find me some horsepower, and let’s not talk until time to go racing. Don’t care what you do, how you do it – find it. And evidently they found it.” That also puts him in a position to win the first Top Fuel #2Fast2Tasty Mission Foods Challenge.
2. - Matt Hagan reminds fans he’s a Funny Car leader, too – After posting back-to-back Gatornationals victories, the Tony Stewart Racing Funny Car driver broke a tie with Tony Pedregon to become fourth on the class’ all-time victories list with 44. He gave crew chief Dickie Venables the best birthday he could have wanted. As for being on that “Funny Car Mount Rushmore” with John Force, Ron Capps, and Robert Hight, Hagan said, “Those two guys – Capps and Hight – they're a great drivers. Ron's a good friend of mine, and Robert, I got a lot of respect for him. It always comes down to those two and me and a couple other drivers every year. There's never been in the last probably eight years that I can think of that we haven't been had a title shot at it at the last day, at the last race. Capps, Force and Hight ... I don't know, maybe one day we might catch Robert, but as far as Force goes, he's going to be the G.O.A.T. forever. I'm going to have to do it ’til I'm 200 if I'm going to catch Force. And Ron's got actually 20 years on me, as far as his driving. To pass some of these other guys that have been out there doing it is an honor, just to even be in that caliber of drivers and people and showmen. It's incredible.”
3 - Gaige Herrera wins on the bike – Pro Stock Motorcycle’s newest young sensation, Gaige Herrera, answered the question of why the legendary Vance & Hines organization hired this soft-spoken 29-year-old fourth-generation competitor from LaHabra, Calif., who has been well-known in other motorcycle circuits. Herrera ran the table – set low elapsed time (6.685 seconds) and top speed of the meet (track-record 203.49 mph, sixth-fastest in class history), qualified No. 1, and won the event. In doing so, he also recorded the first victory for the third-generation Suzuki Hayabusa. Herrera, who made six uneventful appearances last season, said, “I’m at a loss for words. I still can’t believe I’m holding this Wally.” Along the way, in the quarterfinals, he eliminated teammate and mentor Eddie Krawiec. “That right there was a lot of pressure on my shoulders,” Herrera said. “Racing him, that’s big deal. Eddie told me, ‘Go out there and do you.’ He said he felt like he was going to be in trouble.” Turns out he was. Boss Terry Vance told Herrera before the final, “Keep making me proud.” And Herrera said he “can’t explain” how he went from a “Who’s he?” to a “You’ll see.”
3B - Better get there early - NHRA announced on Saturday afternoon a sellout of the second day's qualifying. All three days were packed, including a Friday where the weatherman was no friend, but he did turn out to be accurate. One of the traditions has always been to get there early to avoid the traffic, which left some racers sitting in traffic for almost two hours, even though they were three miles or less down the round. The combination of the Saturday traffic experience and Sunday morning's implementation of daylight savings time inspired many to get there earlier than usual. When many rolled up as early as 5:50 AM (yes, AM), there was already a line of traffic at all gates. However, this time it was because track officials elected to not open the gates and allowed traffic to back up. - Bobby Bennett.
4. - Troy Coughlin Jr. wins Pro Stock opener – For the first time in the past 18 races, neither Greg Anderson nor Erica Enders was in the Pro Stock class’ final round. This is only the first race of the season, but with 21-year-old Mason McGaha posting a runner-up finish to Troy Coughlin Jr., this could be a sign it’s the year the “young kids” of the class start asserting themselves. Besides the obvious positives from his winning performance (becoming the points leader, qualifying for the first #2Fast2Tasty Challenge in two weeks at Phoenix) third-generation racer Coughlin’s special memory from these Gatornationals will be that he scored his first victory when both his father, Troy Coughlin, and grandfather, Jeg Coughlin Sr., saw it firsthand. “To win with my grandfather here today is pretty surreal,” the driver of the Elite Motorsports JEGS.com Camaro said. "He's the man who pretty much started it all for us, as far as drag racing goes. And he's built an iconic brand. It's just fun. This morning I was thinking, 'The chief's coming today.' And it fired me up. It's an honor to have him here."
5. - Josh Hart predicts his own predicament – Cherishing his $80,000 victory Saturday in the Pep Boys Top Fuel All-Star Call-Out bonus race, Hart said, “You have to not take anything like this for granted, because it can go away just like that.” And within 12 hours his elation had become deflation at Gainesville Raceway. Florida’s favorite-son Top Fuel owner-driver lost in Sunday’s first round of eliminations to Tony Schumacher. “I said it yesterday about how humbling this sport can be. I was at the top of the mountain yesterday, and today I didn’t do my job,” said Hart. “Ron (crew chief Douglas) and the guys gave me an amazing race car, and I didn’t take advantage of the opportunity. This will only motivate me, and I wish the Arizona Nationals started tomorrow. We won the Pep Boys Callout, and now we will start focusing on the Camping World Top Fuel championship. There are a lot of races left in the season.” To make the feeling more sickening, Hart ran career-best elapsed time and speed (3.693 seconds, 355.40 mph) in the losing effort.
6. - Side bets spice Pep Boys All-Star Call-Out – If the sanctioning body isn’t going to try to incorporate some of the elements that have made the Steet Outlaws collection of TV programs so explosively popular, then the Top Fuel drivers will. Top Fuel racer Clay Millican figured if the NHRA's Pep Boys All-Star Call-Out event was essentially like “Street Outlaws on nitro,” so when top-ranked Brittany Force chose No. 8 and final seed Millican as her first-round opponent in the specialty race Saturday, he startled her by challenging her to a $1,000 side bet. "I think it caught everybody off-guard and got a chuckle out of the crowd, so it was fun," Millican said. "At the end of the day, either way, if we win or lose, the money's going to charity, so it was just fun to do it." Then Mike Salinas upped the ante. Justin Ashley called out Salinas, and Salinas said, dared Ashley with a $5,000 bet. "This is 100 percent to make it exciting for the fans, make it exciting for my crew and my guys," Salinas said. "I was going to do $10,000, but I didn't want to act like a big shot. Hopefully, we can build on it for the future. What I would like to see is, when we go up for qualifying, people betting on the starting line and get betting into this association and what we're doing because it'll bring a different group of people, so that way, we make the sport more exciting. I'm going to open up a casino at the track myself.
I'm going to carry the money with me. If I lose on the other end, I'm going to give him his $5,000. I got it in cash." Ashley said he wasn’t expecting that, but said, “I should have gone in more prepared that if I knew we were going to call out Mike Salinas, there might have been a side bet that was thrown around. So he caught me off-guard a little bit. But when you're out there in front of people, and he's going to throw a side bet out there, you're not going to say no. It's good for the fans. It makes it that much more exciting. So already a lot on the line, a lot of money on the line, so throw a little bit more on top of it." Ashley said, "It reminds me of, like, you see these drag radial deals where they throw grudge-racing wagers on it. I haven't raced before with betting money on the line, but hey, I'm all for it. I didn't need any more motivation, but now I do."
7 – Smack talk starts – Top Fuel racer Austin Prock said he was licking his chops for some juicy verbal jousting. And he saw it this past weekend – but he wasn’t involved. His Funny Car teammate at John Force Racing was the target of reigning Funny Car champion Ron Capps. Hight was a guest on a few podcast interviews this winter, and he mentioned each time that the Countdown does a disservice to the regular-season winner, and in his 2022 case, he lost a 300-point lead by the manipulation that allowed someone else to win the championship at the 11th hour. Capps was that lucky beneficiary this time. But Capps finally spoke out, reminding that he has been a victim of the Countdown policies more than Hight and more than most. And he directed his “Get over it!” comment toward Hight. “Well, let me tell you,” Capps said, “who’s the person who’s lost the most championships on the last day of the season . . . by less than a handful of points? I guarantee you. But have you ever heard me in all these years, after losing by five points or four points or three points to (Jack) Beckman or (Gary) Scelzi or Force, complain about the Countdown? Ever once? No. It is what it is. We all know it going in. To leave Pomona and wake up Monday morning after you’ve lost the championship, you think back about so many places during that season and that Countdown and if you would’ve just done something a little bit different and gained an extra four or five points, you would be a world champion. It’s that little a difference. I’ve been listening to it all winter long, and I’m tired of it now. Now it’s starting to irritate me. I never complained about it. I laughed about it. So get over it! Get over it! It’s a championship. It’s a Countdown. We all know it.”
8 - Racers qualify for the #2Fast2Tasty Mission Foods Challenge that starts at Phoenix – Whether by tortilla-thin margins or runaway round-wins Sunday at Gainesville Raceway, 16 racers across all four Camping World Series classes earned berths in the first of 12 new bonus events in the regular season. Those who earned spots for the race-within-a-race that awards cash and valuable Countdown bonus points are Steve Torrence, Doug Kalitta, Leah Pruett, and Mike Salinas in Top Fuel, and Matt Hagan, JR Todd, Alexis De Joria, and Chad Green. In the Pro Stock ranks, on the car side, Greg Anderson is the veteran of the bunch that includes Mason McGaha, Troy Coughlin Jr., and Dallas Glenn. Bike racers who earned the distinction are Gaige Herrera, Angie Smith, Jianna Evaristo, and Angie Smith. So fans will see a father-daughter combo in the mex, although they are from different classes: Evaristo is Salinas’ daughter.
9– Doug Kalitta, Steve Torrence on their ways back to the top – Doug Kalitta acquired tuner extraordinaire Alan Johnson in the previous offseason, and everyone thought that spelled a certain championship for the popular Mac Tools Toyota Dragster driver who was stood up at the Top Fuel altar five times. But it was no slam dunk. He didn’t win a single event last season. But he is showing signs of rebounding well. Kalitta was a semifinal finisher Sunday at Gainesville, and his trajectory looks promising.
“I was hoping to make it to the final, for sure. The car was running strong all day and just super excited about the way things are going so far. Everyone is working together really well, and the crew chiefs are really happy with what they’re seeing. Kind of the way it was in testing, as well, so I’m glad we were able to roll it into the first race. I don’t know what happened on that last run, but it was unfortunate to just smoke the tires. You know drag racing; it happens. Looking forward to getting to Phoenix.”
His first-round victory produced a career-best pass. “That was a cool run,” Kalitta said. “For whatever reason, I was trying to steer it to the middle, and it was drifting to the center towards the end. I could tell I wasn’t going to go over or anything, but it was just one of those things where I knew this thing was really running. We really appreciate everything Toyota does for us and look forward to having a good season.”
Much was made of Steve Torrence’s 2022 season, in which he won “only” twice, but missed the mark by what he considered a long shot for a fifth consecutive championship. But with a new dragster he loves already, Torrence advanced to the final round Sunday and lost by just .022 of a second to Mike Salinas.
“We finally got our consistency back,” Torrence said “When you make big changes like we did last year, there always are issues you don’t anticipate. It takes time, but these guys never lost focus. They kept after it, and we’re obviously headed in the right direction now. Give Mike [Salinas] and those guys all the credit, because they had a great weekend, too. But after how our car ran, I can’t wait to get to Phoenix. I don’t know if anyone can dominate like we did (from 2018-21), but I think we’ll win our fair share. There are a lot of good teams out there, but I wouldn’t trade these guys for anyone else.”
10- Racers appreciate NHRA starting the Camping World Drag Racing Series season at Gainesville – Traditionally, the Gatornationals always took the No. 3 slot on the schedule. And it came after visits to Pomona, Calif., and Phoenix and before the first of two Las Vegas races – after which the tour went back East to Charlotte. So the teams, most of which are headquartered at Brownsburg, Ind. – had to cross the country several times before mid-April. The sport broke with that custom in 2021, following a COVID-disrupted 2020. This year, in a cost-saving effort for the teams and the sanctioning body, as well, the season opened at Florida’s historic Gainesville Raceway again. Alluding to Saturday’s announced sell-out crowd, Funny Car’s Capps, who is in his second year of thinking like a budget-minded team owner and not simply a driver, said, “Starting the season off with the Gatornationals was something I think the fans really love.”
Before the event began, he also said racers were excited about that for economic reasons: “It is going to save, from an owner's standpoint, a ton. And I applaud NHRA for finally making the move, because for years, NHRA teams talked about our seasons starting at Pomona on the West Coast, going over to Phoenix, and then going all the way to Florida and then all the way back to Vegas and then all the way back to Charlotte or wherever we would go. There were other reasons I'm sure, but it was dumb. And so they finally made the change. I'm sure it ruffled the feathers a little bit of NHRA when they made the change. But again, I'm thankful. It is a huge deal for us just to go down and run and test ... and not have to zigzag the country with the price of diesel right now.”
10B - That blows - In the history of Pro Modified, dating back to the 1990 debut in Darlington, South Carolina, there has always been at least one of the original power adders - supercharged or nitrous. There's a first time for everything. The entire 16-car Fueltech Pro Modified field featured sixteen supercharged entries, either conventional or centrifugal versions. The turbo entries were also absent. Fans of the class will remember in the first-ever Pro Modified national event, there were 15 nitrous cars and the lone supercharged Monte Carlo driven by Stanley Barker. The No. 1 qualifier was Mike Ashley's nitrous Beretta. - Bobby Bennett
#2 - NHRA ARIZONA NATIONALS
Competition Plus’ water-cooler topics from the Arizona Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park
CAMRIE CARUSO NOTCHES FIRST PRO STOCK VICTORY – Pro Stock sophomore Camrie Caruso made NHRA drag-racing history Sunday at the Arizona Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park near Phoenix, beating Bo Butner in the final round. But the second woman (behind five-time champion Erica Enders) to win in the Pro Stock class had a controversial road to her first pro victory.
In the second round, Caruso faced No. 1 qualifier Cristian Cuadra, who Saturday evening had written his own footnote in the record book as the first Mexican driver to lead a field into eliminations. As they went to stage, Caruso lit both staging bulbs -- not an illegal move but not the best of etiquette. Once the first driver turns on the second staging light, the other has a maximum of seven seconds in which to stage. In the split-second confusion, Cuadra was timed out and not permitted to make the run.
Fernando Cuadra Sr. -- his father, teammate and car owner -- was angry on the starting line as his son’s car was removed. He claimed incorrectly that her move was illegal and said his son “is educated by my family to be courteous, and this is discourtesy. It was a good show. Didn’t happen.”
Dave Connolly, Caruso’s crew chief, said his driver simply made an innocent mistake: “It was just an accident on Camrie’s part. No harm intended on that one. She just took too much of the first bulb and got ’em both.”
Caruso agreed. “Honestly, I took way too much of the first bulb. I went in extremely early to the second bulb. I would never do that intentionally to anyone,” she said. “I definitely didn’t mean to do it there.” She called Cuadra “a great racer” and said it would have been a “tough race . . . if we would’ve gone.
“As soon as I put my line-lock on, it moved a little bit and turned on both bulbs. Then we were in,” she said. “It wasn’t intentional. I did go over and say I’m sorry and that it wasn’t intentional at all. I don’t really like to play starting-line games, because I probably messed myself up, to be honest. I’m still new at this, and you know, we’re really thankful for the win. But it was just a mistake.”
Caruso, the 19th woman to win in a pro category, recorded her personal-milestone victory in her second final-round appearance – again at a racetrack that was marking its final NHRA event. Caruso was runner-up to Enders last spring at Houston Raceway Park, where the land has been sold for commercial expansion.
“We said if we all do our jobs, we win the race,” Caruso said. She’ll race in this coming weekend’s edition of the Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge in Pomona, Calif., and be eligible to win $7,500 and three points toward Countdown supremacy. She said, “We’re going to give it our all to win both.”
Caruso said that at the moment she crossed the finish line in the final round, she didn’t know who had won.
“I’m not going to lie – I wasn’t really sure if I won or not until I pulled off the racetrack,” she said, “because I like to just focus on going straight. I don’t really look around, but it was so awesome. I just went up there and tried to make it just another round and tried my best to do my job, because I knew the guys were going to do theirs.”
She dedicated her trophy to grandfather, “Papa Joe” Caruso, who was home in New York this weekend.
“I’m just excited and thankful. I was really hoping we’d start the year off with a good bang,” she said. “My crew chief, Dave Connelly, has had a great track record with younger drivers and new drivers in the class. I need to hold up my end of the bargain, because my KB Titan teammates always hold up theirs.”
Surprisingly, Enders – the 46-time winner and reigning and five-time Pro Stock champion who’s poised to hit her 440th career round-win plateau – has blanked in the season’s first two races. She dropped out in the first round at both Gainesville, Fla., and Phoenix.
CRISTIAN CUADRA HAS SWEET-AND-SOUR EXPERIENCE – For his part, Cristian Cuadra had a productive weekend, despite his race-day disappointment.
The third-year Pro Stock racer made history Saturday as the first Mexican to qualify No. 1 in any pro class at an NHRA event and put a Ford Mustang at the top of the order for the first time since “Dyno Don” Nicholson topped the qualifying charts at the 1977 U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis. But his race day turned sour in the second round, thanks to a starting-line faux-pas by Caruso.
He was timed out when Caruso quickly double-bulbed him at the Christmas Tree, and he was timed out. But he found positives in the trip to Phoenix.
“It’s crazy. Everything starts with a dream,” he said in a happier moment of the weekend. “I was a kid and saw my dad racing, and I wanted to be in that spot. You meet the people at Elite Motorsports to help make the dream come true. My heart wants to go out of my chest, and I feel really, really happy. That’s why we’re here. We want to make history for our country. Now my next goal is to try and get a Wally. That’s something important for me. We want to make history in Mexico, and we’re already making it.
“I’m really proud that we are making history for our country,” he said. “It was a little weird for me, because I knew I didn’t have a good reaction time. But I got up to the top end and looked at my time slip and realized the reaction time was horrible, but the time slip looks awesome. We have a really good team who has my back. They are helping me to learn how to drive and to learn how to stay calm. Thank you, Rick Jones, for the car you built. It only has two events and it’s already flying.”
3. OFFSEASON TENSION ADDS DRAMA TO FUNNY CAR FINAL - The Funny Car showdown was one that drag-racing fans were eager to see. It became a final round featuring not just two three-time Camping World Drag Racing Series champions, but the current one and the one who thought he should be champion this year. Reigning kingpin Ron Capps, the one who won by merely three points last fall, squared off against Robert Hight, who felt cheated by the Countdown points system.
Capps downplayed the offseason strain between the two of them. He said Hight and crew chief Jimmy Prock have set the performance bar and paid respect for the John Force Racing team. But Hight said he still “had a bone to pick” with Capps, presumably for saying that he was becoming irritated with Hight’s Countdown complaints and telling Hight to “get over it.” But Hight also acknowledged Capps’ expertise and said he was looking forward to racing him again.
They’ll have another chance in six days at the Winternationals at Pomona to joust against each other for a Countdown edge. Both earned spots for the first time in the Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge, Hight by knocking off No. 1 qualifier and keen rival Bob Tasca III in the second round and Capps by besting Blake Alexander in the quarterfinals.
But in Sunday’s final round, the spotlight fell on Hight. And he reveled in it.
“I won my first round of racing here. I hope this isn’t the last race here,” Hight said, “but if it is, we’ve got the Wally [trophy].”
Hight admitted that “qualifying did not go well.” This was the third time in a calendar year that he did not make a qualifying pass quicker than four seconds. But every time that happened and his numbers were subpar, Hight has won. He said those gritty victories “are the ones you love. That’s where you dig down after qualifying and you just never give up on that team.”
Capps said nothing about Hight in particular. He focused more on his semifinal victory over Blake Alexander and then his “excitement after winning the semifinals, as close of a race as that was with Alexis, and Del (Worsham) and that great team.” He said, “I can’t believe how happy we were, knowing we were going to be in the #2Fast2Tasty event. It has changed things for a lot of the teams, so we’re looking forward to that in Pomona.”
In spite of losing traction against Hight in the final, Capps said his was “overall, a great weekend here.” He said he’ll remember a “very demanding track, very hard to get down, very hard to drive. I couldn’t be more proud of our team. I’ve got to thank the Toyota engineers. They were helping us a ton with navigating the track conditions. So, great job by everyone, and the best part is we get to go straight into Pomona.”
4. JUSTIN ASHLEY FOCUSES ON FINISHING STRONG – After earning his sixth overall Top Fuel victory and first at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, Justin Ashley realized how things are flip-flopped from last season – and how that’s all right.
“It’s ironic, because last year, we won the first race (the Winternationals, at Pomona) and then lost in the first round at the Arizona Nationals. This time was the opposite. We lost in the first round the first race (the Gatornationals, at Gainesville, Fla.) and came back and won the Arizona Nationals. It sets the tone for the year,” he said.
“You know you got to start strong, but you also got to finish strong especially with the Countdown format. We learned last year that it may be more important to be able to finish strong. But just learning, just growing, winning definitely helps us to collect some momentum. Every point matters, whether it’s early in the year or late in the year. So (being) able to collect those points early on, I think, is really significant.”
Ashley, who improved to fourth place in the standings, defeated three Top Fuel champions (Tony Schumacher, Steve Torrence and Shawn Langdon) with a combined 13 crowns and this year’s Gatornationals winner, Mike Salinas.
“It was an incredible race day. To be honest with you, it really was an incredible weekend,” Ashley said. “We knew coming into the weekend that we’re going to have to go through a gauntlet of opponents just if we wanted to give ourselves a chance to win on Sunday. My crew chiefs, Mike Green and Tommy De Lago, they learned a lot. They really approach this the right way. We made a lot of changes in the offseason, and they took Friday and Saturday to make quality laps down the racetrack and learn. We were in a good position to go rounds on Sunday. I think that proved to be the case.
“You have to have four perfect rounds of racing to just give yourself a chance to win, and there were a lot of really great races out there. You had the eight-time champ, Gainesville champ, the four-time champ and a one-time champ. There was no escaping these guys,” he said, “but I am just really proud of my team and grateful that we collected this win.”
Ashley saved his best for the last, for a match-up between perhaps the two best “leavers” in the pro ranks that heightened the anticipation for the Top Fuel final round.
“I knew before that round that they were going to try and step it up because Shawn had been running so well. I knew that they were going to try and take it from that 3.74 range to the 3.70 or 3.71 range,” he said. “I couldn’t have been happier when I looked at the time slip. Just a total team effort, and they’ve been tweaking things. They’ve been working on things, and we’re able to have four rounds today and collect the win. But maybe even more importantly, long run, we’ve got four more runs to collect data. So proud of our Phillips Connect Toyota team powered by National Debt Relief.”
Ashley said they experimented a little bit this weekend: “I think we did make some changes, maybe slightly back to our old set-up. But I think we really stayed with the new one, and it just takes time. And we knew that it was going to take time. It was going to take laps. So it’s just a matter of being patient. Mike Green and Tommy De Lago, they were really patient. I think maybe they went back to the old set-up a touch with a few things. But for the most part, it was just them getting used to the new setup. Hats off to them and the guys. We have a resilient group, and it showed with their ability to put the past behind them and focus on just this race.”
5. DOUG KALITTA GETS A VICTORY – Doug Kalitta hadn’t won a race since the October 2020 St. Louis event, but he made up for lost time Saturday. He won the Top Fuel version of the Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge, defeating Mike Salinas in the final round, and secured his 51st overall top-qualifying position and second straight here at Phoenix. Kalitta aced his first-round assignment against Rob Passey, but Kalitta Motorsports teammate Shawn Langdon ended his bid for that elusive 50th triumph.
Current class champion Brittany Force set the top speed of the meet at 336.23 mph, and Doug Kalitta had low elapsed time of the weekend at 3.679 seconds.
Leah Pruett and Steve Torrence will return to the Challenge this coming weekend at In N Out Pomona Dragstrip. Finalists Shawn Langdon and Justin Ashley will race for the $10,000 bonus money and maximum three points for the first time.
10. TASCA GETS SOLO AFTER ALL - Bob Tasca III thought one of the biggest perks of securing his 10th career No. 1 Funny Car start would be having a bye run in the first round.
He figured that Jim Campbell would not make the show because his run in Saturday’s first qualifying session was disqualified because it didn’t meet the weight requirement and he was unable to take advantage of his final chance to break into the 16-car field because of a staging-lane mishap.
Campbell’s car rolled up against the back of the team’s tow vehicle. Thankfully, no one was injured - no one was in the immediate area of the incident.
However, the front of the body was damaged enough the body suffered a crack just above the wheel well. Campbell had no choice but to skip the third overall and final qualifying session.
Race officials inserted Campbell into the lineup for Sunday eliminations because he made legitimate attempts to qualify. So he was the No. 16 starter, set for a match-up with Tasca.
But on race-day morning, Tasca got his solo pass. Campbell’s car was removed from the starting line again. Tasca fell to eventual winner Robert Hight in the second round.
#3 - NHRA WINTERNATIONALS
Competition Plus’ Water-Cooler Topics From The Lucas Oil Winternationals
1. NEVER TOO EARLY TO THINK OF TITLE - Top Fuel winner Justin Ashley recognizes that the 2023 Top Fuel champion will be crowned here at In-N-Out Burger Pomona Dragstrip – but not until November, not at this Winternationals appearance.
However, the class’ first two-time winner of the season said, “It is important to know the championship’s a long way (off), but it's important to start collecting points now, because you want to be in the best possible position once that Countdown starts. Goal No. 1 is to make the Countdown. Goal No. 2 is put yourself in a position to win the championship. And those points add up. The points that we accumulate now count just as much as the points that we accumulate in Indy before the Countdown starts. It's never too early to start thinking about the championship.
“Our focus is going to stay on one race at a time. After this win, it will shift to Las Vegas,” he said, referring to the Four-Wide Nationals in two weeks at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. “But I think collecting those points is something that's always in the back of our minds.”
And Ashley isn’t one to peek past his blinders. He keeps a keen eye on the task at hand. And that went for Sunday’s final-round opponent Austin Prock – a driver he faced three times in four final rounds last year, and a young gun who’s about as sharp on the Christmas Tree as he is.
“He’s just another opponent in the other lane,” Ashley said following his ninth overall victory. “Obviously, I have a lot of respect for Austin. I think he does a great job on the starting line. He's a great driver, and I have a lot of respect for all the drivers out here, but I think I'd be doing my team a disservice if I was focused on what's going on in the other lane. So we're just focused on doing the very best that we can focus on our lane, doing everything I can to go A to B as straight and as quickly as possible. So that's really where the focus always is.
“I think I'm just focusing on the present moment and enjoying it,” he said. “I do think that last year, thanks to Philips Connect, we took a big step in the right direction. And this year, I think your focus was to take it to the next level. And I think you've seen that so far. In the first three races, especially these last two wins, and it's just a testament to the hard work that our team puts in. We're on an upward trajectory right now.”
The momentum, Ashley said, “is tremendous. It's nice to leave here with the points lead. It's a long season so we have plenty of time left, but the points that we accumulate now count just as much for the points that we accumulate later before the Countdown so to be able to stack those points on top of each other, including in the Mission Foods Challenge, really is very significant. You have to collect round wins. You're not always going to win the race. You know, these races are hard to win. But you have to do a good job of stacking round wins. I think we've done a good job of that. We have to find that next step to find that consistency. There was a period last year where we didn't win any races, but I think we went to five semifinals in a row. It's about maintaining that consistency, learning from each and every run, and I think that was an important step in our evolution as a team.”
2. FUNNY CAR WINNER MATT HAGAN TOPS CAPPS IN FINAL – On the 50th anniversary of Hall of Famer Don Schumacher’s 1973 Winternationals Funny Car victory, two of his most successful drivers – three-time champions Matt Hagan and Ron Capps – met in the class’ showdown.
In a powerhouse final in which Capps and Hagan have combined for 223 money-round appearances (Capps 142, Hagan 81), Hagan ruled from wire to wire for his 45th victory. He became the category’s first repeat winner as he improved his elimination-round record this season to 9-1 in the Haas Automation Dodge Charger Hellcat.
Racer Jack Beckman always said, “You have no friends out here between the burnout and the turnout.” And Hagan knew that Sunday. He was determined to record a second victory in the young season’s first three events for Tony Stewart Racing. So when he knew he would be facing close friend Ron Capps in the final round, Hagan said, “I’ve got a lot of respect for him. I like the guy a lot, but we’ve got to put him on the trailer.”
And he did.
However, Hagan said, “As much as I’d like to beat on my chest and say we’ve won two races out of the three, we’re still working through some stuff with the combination on this car.
Crew chief “Dickie Venables has been able to put his stamp on this deal with innovation on the chassis and different things,” Hagan said. “And we know we’re going to keep those things in-house. At DSR (Don Schumacher Racing), we had a bunch of teammates, so the knowledge got spread around. So you never really had that advantage. That being said, we still have a lot of things to work through on this car.”
Hagan said, “It’s a great day when you can go from 10th in qualifying and win the race. I woke up and knew we had a little bit of a hill to climb as a team, and it’s just one of those deals where as things progressed and the car goes down the track, you get more confident. Just to watch Dickie and what he does on the racetrack, there’s very few weekends where that guy doesn’t impress me.
“I’m glad to have him in our corner and I’m just super-proud of my guys. It’s pretty amazing to be able to put a car in the winners circle with a new sponsor,” he said. “Funny Car is tough, and it’s going to be a dogfight. And there’s just no room for error, because it’s so tough.”
Points leader Hagan has a 26-point edge on Capps as the Camping World Drag Racing Series heads in two weeks to The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and the first of two four-wide events. The following race, also in four-wide fashion, will be at zMAX Dragway at Concord, N.C.
3. GLENN MASTERS POMONA RACETRACK – Both Matt Hartford and Dallas Glenn were eager to capture a first In-N-Out Burger Pomona Dragstrip victory in the Pro Stock class. In the end, Glenn and his RAD Torque Chevy Camaro came away with bragging rights – by .0033 seconds, or about 12 inches – in his first final-round match-up with Hartford and the Total Seal Camaro.
The two, with KB Titan power under their hoods, had split eight previous meetings, but this time Glenn – who made the final here in his sportsman-racing days in the Stock class – tamed this track he said sometimes has been “brutal” to him.
After topping Chris McGaha, Bo Butner, and teammate Camrie Caruso, Glenn said it reinforced this weekend that “when you go in on the first run Friday, you cannot leave anything on the table” and that he “crossed my fingers as I ran through the gears” in the final.
The victory gave Glenn the points lead for the first time in his fresh career, and it marked the third different Pro Stock winner in three races. With it, Glenn has ensured he’ll have at least one victory in his first three years in the class.
“It was a great day and anytime I’m worn out at the end of the day, I’m happy,” he said.
“I’ve got an absolutely great car, and it’s been running really well. I’m comfortable in it, and I was just able to make a lot of clean runs. It’s really cool to be the points leader right now. I’ve never been able to get it done in Pomona before, and it’s been so frustrating. But I knew the car was going to be really good today, and I was just happy it all came together for us.”
4. #2FAST2TASTY WILL SEE NEW FACES AT JOLIET – Top Fuel’s Justin Ashley and Pro Stock’s Matt Hartford have a chance at the Route 66 Nationals at Joliet, Ill., in May to become the first back-to-back winners of the Mission Foods-sponsored bonus race that takes place during Saturday qualifying. (The program skips the two April four-wide events at Las Vegas and Charlotte.) New to the Top Fuel version of the $10,000-to-win race-within-a-race will be Brittany Force and Antron Brown. They’ll join Ashley and Austin Prock. In the Funny Car class, Terry Haddock and Bob Tasca III will get their first chances at the $10,000 prize and three Countdown-applied points, and Ron Capps and Matt Hagan also will compete. In the Pro Stock division, $7,500 and valuable bonus points are up for grabs among Camrie Caruso, Dallas Glenn, Aaron Stanfield, and this Saturday’s victor Hartford.
Chad Green signaled his arrival as a Funny Car championship contender with his $10,000, three-point victory Saturday, and Ashley used his Top Fuel #2Fast2Tasty victory Saturday to seize the No. 1 qualifying position for eliminations. For Hartford, Saturday’s win was a springboard to the No. 2 starting spot for Sunday’s runoffs and a return visit to the bonus event.
5. J.R. TODD’S NO GOOD, HORRIBLE, ROTTEN, VERY BAD WEEKEND – J.R. Todd’s bid for a first victory since the March 2021 Gatornationals had one bright spot this weekend: He registered a 3.935-second elapsed time in the second qualifying session to earn a berth in the top half of Sunday’s starting line-up. But that’s about where his good luck ran out.
On that Q2 run, his chances and his DHL Toyota Supra chassis and body were collateral damage in John Force’s run-amok pass. Force’s crash started a string of misfortune for the Kalitta Motorsports driver and 2018 Funny Car champion. Force collected him in his own wild ride, crossing the center line after the finish stripe. Force barged into Todd’s lane behind Todd, zoomed up on Todd’s left between Todd and the guard wall, then passed in front of Todd and draped his parachutes over Todd’s car, dragging him toward the right wall. Force hit the wall and tore up the front of his Peak Chevy Camaro.
Todd said it was “just a normal run. I was trucking down through there pretty good, get the ’chutes out before the finish line like normal – like you’re pretty much taught as a young driver. And that time I feel like I paid the price for doing it. At first, I thought maybe he just got into my ’chutes or something, but next thing I know, I see him on my left side and we’re in the left lane. You’re not supposed to be there. After that, just sort of hanging on and steering away from him, steering away from the wall, and trying to get on the brake to get the thing stopped.
“But when the ’chutes are tangled up like that, you’re just along for the ride,” Todd said. “It’s a helpless feeling. You’re not really in control at that point when the other guy is wrapped in your ’chutes or his ’chutes are wrapped around your car. He [Force] was dragging us along for the ride. It sucks. I don’t like tearing up stuff, especially when it’s out of my control.”
Both drivers exited their cars on their own power, and neither was injured.
“It’s really unfortunate, because it was a brand new car for us, beautiful car and worked really well,” Todd said.” There’s nothing wrong with our car that we pulled out for Q3, but just new body and new car ... I hate creating extra work for the guys, especially something silly like that.”
That was perturbing enough. But after Todd’s team hauled out the back-up car for the final qualifying session, Tim Wilkerson in the opposite lane clipped the timing cone, and neither driver received an elapsed time. So Todd was fortunate enough to snag the No. 5 starting spot in the order.
Oh, but Todd had more trouble. With a safe lead against Alex Laughlin in Sunday’s opening round, Todd’s engine detonated, destroying the back-up body, damaging the chassis, and losing the round to Laughlin.
“If you knew a weekend like this was coming, you’d rather stay home,” Todd said Sunday. “More than anything, I just hate all the work that’s been created for all my guys – especially right before an off weekend. With all the work the DHL team’s been doing up to this point, my guys needed that off week badly. Now they have a ton more work to get done before we go to Las Vegas.
“The DHL Toyota Supra was running OK early, and I didn’t see Alex Laughlin next to me. The next thing I knew, after it got down the track quite a ways, it started spinning the tires. I learned in the Gainesville (Fla.) final that when it starts spinning like that, you've got to get out of the throttle as soon as possible. Sure enough, it happened in the first round today, and we saw what can happen. Nowadays, the way we run these things, as soon as it spins the tires, you’ve got to get off the throttle. I was too late doing that.”
Todd said, “Looking back on it, I wish I could go back and lift sooner. If you do that, you’ll lose the round, but we would have come back with a race car and body instead a lot of extra work for these guys.
“We’ll see where we are this week with cars and parts. If I need to go to the shop in Ypsilanti (Mich.) or Brownsburg (Ind.) to deliver parts and pieces, I’ll do whatever the DHL team needs. I just want to do anything I can to contribute on my end to get us ready for Las Vegas,” he said.
6. CINDERELLA MAN – Longtime Funny Car racer Terry Haddock, who last weekend at Phoenix started from the top half of the ladder for the first time in his career, reached his first semifinal Sunday at In-N-Out Burger Pomona Dragstrip.
“The first thing I’ve got to do is say thanks to God, because this is amazing,” Haddock said. “It’s amazing you can come out here and give all you’ve got for all these years and when you work hard and you don’t give up, you get your chance.”
He claimed a spot in the four-driver Funny Car Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge that will run next in May at the Joliet, Ill., race. He said the $10,000 jackpot is cool to pursue, “but just going rounds is amazing. Just getting to drive this car is amazing. We don’t have a lot but we keep going.”
Crew chief Johnny West called this weekend “a blessing” and said, “These guys work so hard. You can’t even fathom how much work goes into this when they get out here.”
7. SQUIRRELLY CAR TO BLAME FOR JOHN FORCE’S CRASH? – John Force’s qualifying accident and subsequent center-line-crossing incident Saturday were the buzz of the weekend.
But Force insisted, “I’m not doing anything different. This BlueDEF Chevy Camaro moved around a little bit and made a left, but I thought it would come back on me. But it didn’t come back. For some reason, I’m snake-bit right now.”
In his first Saturday qualifying attempt, Force’s car darted into Todd’s lane, swooped up on Todd’s left between the Kalitta Motorsports driver and the guard wall. Both cars were ruined in the mishap as Force’s parachutes wrapped around Todd’s Toyota.
On his second Saturday pass, Force shut off after being pulled to the left and hitting another pair of cones. That run also was disqualified. So Force was lucky to end up with the No. 16 position for the first time since this race last year, leaving Jeff Diehl and Steven Densham with DNQs.
“It got squirrely up there,” Force said of his car, “but it’s been doing that since the beginning of the season, and we think we know why. Driving right, left, right, left, I can do that. I do that all the time, trying to keep it straight. When it hit the bump up there (toward the top end), though, it blew the tires off, and it made a left turn into the other lane. I thought I just got his header, J.R. Todd, but I’m glad he’s OK. Then it hit the wall hard. I have to re-evaluate it. I watched the video. Maybe I have to pull it back more. I’m OK, but more importantly, J.R. is OK.”
9. GOLDEN ANNIVERSARY – Top Fuel racer Tony Schumacher said he wasn’t aware of it, and it slipped dad Don Schumacher’s mind, as well. But this visit to Pomona marked the 50th anniversary of the elder Schumacher’s 1973 Winternationals victory.
The younger Schumacher said Saturday that his father seldom mentioned it: “Not much. Honestly, not much. And that's a big, big victory for him. Of the five NHRA races that he won, this one had to be a huge one. Indy was huge and Ohio. Each one of those was back in a different world where you ran much, much less races. Each one of those had to be an epic, epic accomplishment. So good for him.”
Don Schumacher said Sunday morning from Florida by phone, “I really try to live the present moment rather than the past.”
But his son said it would be special to bring home a victory for the organization that has seen Joe and Cathi Maynard assume majority ownership.
“Let’s see if we can't go out there 50 years later, do it again. I always love when someone would say, ‘Oh, by the way, if Schumacher wins this ...’ We always seem to win those,” he said.
He didn’t this time, losing to Shawn Langdon by .0147 of a second despite posting his quickest elapsed time of the weekend (3.738 seconds).
Don Schumacher easily recalled details of that 1973 triumph.
“That was an amazing day. I raced (Kenny) Bernstein in the final,” he said. “The track was sketchy, so even though we had two speeds in the Funny Car, I ran high gear all day long. That’s what got me through it, versus what everybody else did. It was a fun day, to say the least.”
The Hall of Fame patriarch fielded a stable of drivers who produced 19 championships and 366 victories.
“It has been a remarkable career,” he said. “I never imagined any of this would ever have transpired.”
He said he’ll attend the four-wide race at Las Vegas in two weeks.
#4 - NHRA VEGAS 4-WIDE NATIONALS
Competition Plus’ Water-Cooler Topics From The NHRA Vegas 4Wide Natinals.
1. Tony Stewart adds “drag racing winner” to his crowded resume, says he’s ‘having fun living my life now’ - By three ten-thousandths of a second, Tony Stewart added “NHRA drag-racing winner” to his already resplendent résumé Sunday at the Four-Wide Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Minutes after Stewart claimed the Top Alcohol Dragster trophy, his Funny Car driver, Matt Hagan, put the team’s Haas Automation Dodge Hellcat into the winners circle, establishing his command over the class with his third triumph in the season’s first four races.
They joined Antron Brown (Top Fuel) and Dallas Glenn (Pro Stock) atop the winners podium at the conclusion of this fourth of 21 races on the Camping World Drag Racing Series schedule.
Borrowing a line from the movie “Talladega Nights,” Stewart wisecracked, “I feel like Ricky Bobby: 'I don’t know what to do with my hands,'” at the top end of the track shortly after climbing from his Mobil 1 dragster. Within minutes, he put those hands to use, high-fiving his team for its first double-up victory.
“I got tired of looking at Leah’s Wallys, and I wanted to know what it feels like to have one of my own,” Stewart said after edging runner-up Todd Bruce in the final so-called “quad” in just his fourth national event.
The four-wide format, which has confounded even the most seasoned drag-racing veterans, hasn’t fazed Stewart. He said he figures it’s a bit of an equalizer.
“I’m pretty excited about it, honestly,” he said. “I looked forward to this event when we were doing the schedule. I got excited about it, because there’s no way I’m going to sit here and say I’m not at a disadvantage when you’re going up against guys who have been drag racing for years. But they don’t race four-wide a lot. So that kind of gets ’em out of their comfort zone, gets ’em out doing something different – and it’s all different for me. If anything, this would be a bit of an equalizer, and I wouldn’t be at quite a disadvantage. I embraced it.
“There wasn’t anything that caught me off-guard, necessarily,” he said. “There’s nothing about the four-wide that I haven’t liked so far. I feel like the approach I’ve been going with every round of qualifying has been a very solid approach. You hear drivers talk about getting disoriented on which light they’re looking at. I’ve found the lights to be easy to stay with.”
He likened this unconventional style to “having the opportunity to run a road course or dirt track in the [NASCAR] Cup Series -- do something that’s a little different. So, doing the four-wide version, I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s kind of like a heat-race format, I guess, for short-track racing. You don’t have to win. You just got to finish in the top two until you get to the finals, then you’ve got to go for the win, obviously.”
All in all, he said, “I think it’s pretty cool. I’m excited and appreciative that I get to run it here at Vegas and can’t wait to go to Charlotte and do it again.”
The NHRA is challenging its drivers with back-to-back four-wide races. The action will shift to the East Coast for the April 28-30 Circe K Four-Wide Nationals at Concord, N.C.’s zMAX Dragway.
As for whether his business associates in other endeavors are weary of hearing about his newly discovered excitement for NHRA drag racing, Stewart said, “I don’t give a s---. I don’t care if NASCAR is mad. I don’t care if anybody’s mad. I’m having fun, living my life now. I’m able to control my life. I don’t have to do all the things that I had to do with my previous jobs. I have more control of my life. I have great teammates that drive for us, a great wife, and [Pruett and Hagan] have been the best teachers you can ask for and get advice from.
“They all know I’m having fun. I think it’s the opposite of what you thought,” he said. “The comment I get the most is how happy I am: ‘You look happy. You look at peace.’ And I haven’t had that for a long time. So I’m at a very good spot in my life right now.”
And his team is at a really strong spot right now. Hagan is the Funny Car points leader. Pruett is fifth in the standings among the Top Fuel leaders after winning her opening round Sunday and advancing to the semifinal. And Stewart has mastered the track that denied him in the final against Madison Payne in his previous appearance here last fall.
Stewart has won at every venue on the Las Vegas Motor Speedway property now.
“The Bullring is their pavement short track, and we won in a USAC spring and a USAC midget car on the same night,” he said. “We’ve won on the dirt track in a 360 winged sprint car. And I won my first USAC Silver Crown race at the dirt track ... then in the Cup car on the big track ... and here today. Plus in 1997, our only IndyCar championship finished here at Vegas.”
2. Shawn Langdon calls out Josh Hart at top end after his Top Fuel semifinal staging snafu - In a tough-down-the-line Top Fuel semifinal quad that promised to produce a close finish, a starting-line miscue resulted in Shawn Langdon timing out, Mike Salinas losing traction early, Steve Torrence winning in spite of his momentary confusion, and Josh Hart getting the blame.
Langdon took responsibility for his performance, but he threw massive shade at Hart in the R+L Carriers dragster when he emerged from his DHL dragster.
“I screwed up,” he said, before launching into criticism of Hart. “Josh has been hanging a lot of people out. He’s a good guy. I like Josh. But he’s slow, and everybody knows it. Everybody in the class talks about it.
“Bottom line, I’ve got to get my s--- together. That was uncalled for on my end,” Langdon said. “My guys deserve better than that. I’m very, very disappointed in myself. I know how to race better than that. I know the [seven-second] count. I knew to get in. It’s 100 percent on me. I owe everybody an apology for my sponsors.
“That’s just how we race Josh. The whole class knows he takes a long time. The result is I screwed up,” he said.
Torrence was annoyed, even though he advanced to the final round and eventually finished as runner-up to quasi-teammate Antron Brown and reclaimed the points lead. (In the end, he didn’t fare poorly, for he has won or been runner-up at eight of the past 10 four-wide races, and his six four-wide victories are twice as many as anyone else has earned in any class.)
After slamming his harness on his CAPCO dragster when he stepped from his car, Torrence said, “I just missed the Tree, didn’t do my job. Got caught in some kind of stupid game that was going on with somebody.
“Drag racing is drag racing. We do what we do. Everything that you do is within the rules. I don’t know what was going on, but I just caught myself blinking. I saw the whole bulb was on,” he said.
Hart was anything but apologetic.
“If I was playing games, I wouldn't have been the one that timed out,” Hart, recognized as one of the quickest drivers off the starting line, said. “I guess sooner or later you see everyone's true colors, but I didn't time out. I didn't do it intentionally. I am anticipating the pain from the launch because of my neck, and you can't go out here and start whining about your pain. You have to muscle through it. You got these guys out here busting their butts constantly. So you know, I just did the best that I could. Other drivers obviously are not approving of that, but I didn't do anything wrong. I am racing within the confines of the NHRA. I can't change the rules. I just follow them.”
3. Matt Hagan establishes early dominance in Funny Car class - Matt Hagan’s fifth victory at Las Vegas and 46th overall was an extra-special one, because he shared it with boss Tony Stewart, the Top Alcohol Dragster winner Sunday.
The Haas Automation Dodge Hellcat driver benefitted from nemesis Robert Hight’s loss in their first-round foursome, as well as first-round exits by Ron Capps and Bob Tasca III in their opening-round quad. In the final round, Hagan defeated runner-up Tim Wilkerson, who was competing against the car he consults on and his own son Dan Wilkerson tunes, and a rejuvenated John Force, who is rebounding from a sub-par performance at the previous race, at Pomona, Calif.
Hagan and crew chief Dickie Venables are on a roll, after winning at Gainesville and Pomona, too.
Hagan called Stewart “a wheelman at anything he steps into” and said he wasn’t feeling any real pressure following Stewart’s achievement in the Top Alcohol Dragster final – until Stewart sent him down the track with what was supposed to be encouragement.
“I was like, all right, he’s won -- no pressure,” Hagan said. “Then he comes and crawls under the car and says, ‘I just won. You better win. Let’s go.’ Was like, ‘Ah, I feel a little pressure now.’
"Nah, but it’s great. To win and share this victory lane with Tony Stewart is a huge highlight of my career. People don’t realize what type of guy he is. I had no idea who Tony Stewart was, didn’t follow circle track or anything. [He’s] just a genuinely good dude, man. And those are hard to find nowadays. I’m not just saying that because he’s my boss. He could fire me tomorrow, and I’d say it again. He's the kind of guy you want to win for then drink a beer with afterward.”
4. Dallas Glenn records back-to-back victories in Pro Stock - The third-year RAD Torque Systems Chevy Camaro driver for KB Titan Racing followed his Winternationals victory at Pomona with his sixth overall victory and second at Las Vegas. He edged Troy Coughlin Jr. by about three feet – a mere 0.0092 of a second.
It was atonement for top qualifier Glenn, who reached the final quad here last season and broke at the starting line.
He said, “I didn’t feel I did my job the best that I could’ve” Sunday and was "pumped" to see that he had won, especially against the cagey Coughlin, who launched at about the same moment, and against Cristian Cuadra, who had cut excellent reaction times all day, and against Deric Kramer.
“Even though I was not the best today, I was barely good enough to get it done,” Glenn said. “And that’s kind of what matters in four-wide.”
5. Antron Brown posts first Top Fuel victory of the young season - The three-time series champion, owner-driver of the Matco Tools Toyota dragster at AB Motorsports, earned his 56th Top Fuel victory and 72nd overall, outrunning Steve Torrence by about seven feet in the final round.
“Man, [Force] beat us in the first round by four-thou, the second round by nine-thou, but we got ’em on the third try,” Brown said. “Third time’s the charm. We knew we had to step it up against them because that car has been so consistent. It’s a Xerox machine. That’s why they’re the defending champs.
“When you’re racing four-wide, everything is crazy,” he said. “It’s kind of a battle royal, and the final round was no exception. Every round was a tough match-up. Look at the final today: you’ve got the four-time champion Steve; Brittany, a two-time champ; myself; and Josh Hart. To come up with that win, that was definitely a statement for our Matco Tools / Lucas Oil / FVP / FDC / Hangsterfers’ / Sirius XM team. That was a heck of a win. I’m just super-pumped, super-proud.”
Nearly half of the top 10 drivers in the Top Fuel standings were gone by the end of the first round: points leader Justin Ashley, No. 5 Austin Prock, No. 8 Doug Kalitta, and No. 10 Tony Schumacher. No. 11 Clay Millican got sent home early, too.
6. John Force fights back, bites back - John Force took a vacation with his family since his debacle at Pomona, but it didn’t do much to make him feel better about the accident that he triggered that collected J.R. Todd and wrecked both of their race cars. However, once he got back to the racetrack, he started to recover, and started getting his mojo back.
After his second qualifying pass Saturday, one of his PEAK Chevy Camaro crew members came to him and shook his hand. And some made a little much of that gesture, he seemed to think. He said it simply meant that the crew has his back.
“It’s just a run – and I’ve made five million of these runs,” Force said. “You’ve got to watch [out]. This is a mental game. It can make you mental.”
Although he clearly is growing weary of talking about the Pomona incident, Force said Saturday afternoon, “I’ve always lived on the edge.
“I went to my guys [Friday] night,” he said, “and I asked, ‘Do you believe in me? I believe in you. But do you believe in me? ’Cause if you don’t, I need to go home.’ When that stuff [like the accident] happens, especially when you tie up another driver, that’s when OK – you figure this out or get out. And I’m not getting out.”
Then Sunday he said, “I’ve had drivers coming up to me, and I know they’re not happy with me. I get it. But they always say, ‘You’ll be OK.’ Ron Capps was one of the first – even said he loves me. That matters to me. It keeps my head in the game. This game will beat you up. It beat me up bad.”
After earning a spot in the final round Sunday, Force said, “I’m just the luckiest guy in the world, coming back from being an embarrassment. I’m just glad I can be able to race with these kids.”
He finished third in his quad, but he’s starting to regain that 16-time-champion swagger.
Force did say he’s still evaluating exactly what went wrong with his car during qualifying for the Winternationals. But he said he’s sure of one thing: His age didn’t play a factor in the incident, and he isn’t planning to quit. He discredited a rumor that one or more racers approached him at the Lucas Oil Winternationals and urged him to step away from the cockpit.
“We're going to address my car. My crew chiefs have addressed me. Robert [Hight, his teammate and company president] has addressed me, like, ‘You push it too far.’ I’ve done it before, trying to get qualified and doing stuff, but this wasn't a good time to push it because it got me,” Force told Competition Plus just before this edition of the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
He attributed the accident to “a combination of things. I oversteered it myself. My fault. Maybe the track was really narrow, and I learned a good lesson on that. I'm going to go out and make some runs and see where I'm at with the car. Nothing's wrong with me. No different, other than I'm just getting older. But bottom line, after I make some runs, then I can probably give you some answers. Maybe we'll know what went wrong. And I'm not arguing – I was part of it.”
His 74th birthday is May 4. And not unpredictably, talk turned to Force’s age following the crash, especially considering he also had his final qualifying pass tossed out because he drove across the center line again. Inevitably, as well, rumors swirled at the racetrack that a group of drivers encouraged him to quit.
But Force said, “No, it didn’t happen. Not even one. If there was somebody who said they came to me, well, tell me who they are, because they didn't. If anything, people were probably staying away from me out of respect. I'm sure there's people that don't want to see me hurt, because at my age, if you get hurt, it'd be different than a 30-year-old that gets hurt in a car. But no, I’d tell you if somebody came to me. J.R., he didn't like it. But nobody asked me to retire. I'd tell you if they did.
“Five years ago, I got over the center line, and people were after me then because nobody likes to see that. Then they turn around and do it the next day, and then they're saying, ‘Oh, gee, well, I did it, too.’ Well, who knows why? I don't blame nobody. We just go down the road,” he said.
“Is my age a factor? I don't believe so,” Force said. “But you ask anybody, ‘Why would you be 70 years old and driving a race car?' Why? Because I love to drive them. I'm trying to help the sport. I'm trying to keep cars out there. I don't do it for the money. I made enough money, I can retire. I do it because I love the driving. I love the battle. I love the camaraderie. I love being with the people and the cheer of the crowd, all that s---, you know what I'm saying? But time tells me it's time and I'll know it. And that's all I can say about that.”
He said he’s ready to keep on fighting the good fight: “Yeah, well, it's what I do.”
Force is reconciled to the fact that observers will have their own opinions and that not all will be favorable – or even unfavorable. He said, “There's two sides to everything. And I don't follow the Internet, but I've heard a lot of people are upset on the Internet. Some are for me, some are against me. That's the way the world is.”
7. J.R. Todd doubly disappointed - For the second straight race, DHL Toyota Supra Funny Car driver J.R. Todd said he had experienced “definitely a forgettable weekend.” But the Kalitta Motorsports driver assumed responsibility for the failure to qualify that wiped out his crew’s phenomenal repair-and-replace effort for which they earned the “Never Rest Award.”
“I put the blame on me. I should have done a better job earlier in the weekend and keeping the thing in the groove and not come down to Q4 to get in the show,” Todd said Saturday afternoon.
“All in all, I feel bad for my guys [after] all the work they put in this past week to get this DHL GR Supra back on track. All the guys back at PBRC [Precision Built Race Cars] and everybody at Kalitta Motorsports and back at the fab shop for busting their asses to get us back out here,” he said. “This is a tough pill to swallow, but I’m sure we’ll stay and run on Monday to get this thing figured out. It's still early in the season, and there’s a lot of racing left.”
Todd said, “I told these guys I’m sorry. They deserve better than this, and I wanted to get them a win this weekend. That’s the way I can pay them back.”
9. Chad Green continues Funny Car momentum - With a pair of semifinal finishes and a $10,000 victory in the second Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge bonus race to start his season, Chad Green was on a roll. Then his car wouldn’t roll off the starting line at Pomona in Race No. 3 of the season. So the Midland, Texas, oil-well-servicing company owner said “it’s so imperative” to have a strong performance here and not break that momentum.
“For that to happen to us [at Pomona] was really unfortunate, and we don't want something like that to just kill our momentum. So it's really important that we get right back on track right now, this race,” Green said.
And he did, advancing to the final round. Although according to NHRA four-wide rules, he will not get credit for a final-round appearance, he knows he was racing for the trophy that went to Matt Hagan. But he was in there, digging, alongside runner-up Tim Wilkerson and resurgent John Force, as well.
It wasn’t smooth sailing for Green the whole weekend, though. He bumped into the field on the final pass of qualifying Saturday, knocking out Terry Haddock – the year’s other “surprise” driver. Green emerged from an opening-round quad that saw Ron Capps and Bob Tasca III bow out, leaving Blake Alexander to advance along with him.
Winning the Mission Foods Challenge at Pomona, Green said, “definitely has given me a lot of confidence. And along with that, it's given the whole team ... a lot of confidence. So there's nothing better than success for the team to breed more success.”
He said the team “changed a few parts in the off season, so we're still trying to get the tune-up dialed in. But we're confident we're going to get back in the [3.]80s.”
Green said Sunday that crew chief Daniel Wilkerson “is coming into his own, and it’s cool to see that happening. This is our second year with the same team. We’ve really come a long ways.”
10. Memorable quotes from the weekend - “This is kind of gnarly – and I really enjoy it.” - Blake Alexander, Funny Car racer for Jim Head Racing, regarding the four-wide format
“This team has earned this. This was no gimme. We don’t want gimmes out here. This is kind of my father’s dream. I wish I were surfing 70-foot waves. This is for him. He instilled this in me.”
- Jeff Diehl, Funny Car owner-driver, after advancing along with Matt Hagan in his first-round foursome, as Robert Hight and Alex Laughlin were eliminated
#5 - NHRA CHARLOTTE FOUR-WIDE
Competition Plus’ Water-Cooler Topics From The Circle K Four-Wide Nationals in Charlotte, NC.
Competition Plus’ water-cooler topics from the Circle K Four-Wide Nationals at zMAX Dragway at Concord, N.C.
1. More hurrahs for Herrera - Vance & Hines newcomer Gaige Herrera’s Pro Stock Motorcycle record is untarnished this season.
Although the campaign is just two races old, Herrera clearly is the racer to beat. He has scored back-to-back No. 1 starts and victories aboard the Gen 3 Hayabusa Suzuki.
The bikes will be back in action, in conventional two-wide format along with the rest of the pro categories, at the May 19-21 Gerber Collision and Glass Route 66 Nationals at Joliet, Ill.
2. Kramer the cream of the Pro Stock field - Deric Kramer held off the two hottest Pro Stock racers on the Camping World Drag Racing Series tour – top qualifier Matt Hartford and Dallas Glenn, winner of the past two races – as well as rising star Fernando Cuadra Jr. to win for the first time since the fall Charlotte event here in 2019.
“Once you win one of these,” five-time winner Kramer said, “there’s nothing more that you want to do than win another.”
Clutching his Wally trophy, the Colorado native said, “After you hoist one and you don’t hoist another for a long time, you think it might never come [again]. Finally we got it done today.”
He did so with a 17-inch margin of victory over Glenn.
3. Well, Austin Prock can’t say that anymore - When Top Fuel driver Austin Prock reached the final round, he remarked, “I’ve never had any luck here, but maybe today’s my day.”
His hunch was correct. He outran Leah Pruett and Josh Hart and got no opposition from red-lighting Steve Torrence to claim his first victory of the year in his second final-round appearance in three races. Prock was runner-up to Justin Ashley at the Winternationals at Pomona, Calif.
Prock doubled up in the winner's circle with Funny Car victor Robert Hight, whose tuner and assistant crew chief happen to be Prock’s dad, Jimmy, and brother, Thomas, respectively.
4. Hight shakes off early season slump to win Funny Car trophy - When Robert Hight marched to victory at the Arizona Nationals, race No. 2 of the season, it appeared he was on his way to being one of the early rulers of the Funny Car class.
But the three-time champion with 63 victories in 401 races encountered a couple of uncharacteristic first-round exits at Pomona and Las Vegas. Two-wide or four-wide, that was something he didn’t want to repeat. So he and his John Force Racing team stayed behind at Las Vegas and did some testing.
Make that ... they did some changing. Both Hight and crew chief Jimmy Prock made no secret of it. And why should they? It paid off with a dramatic turnaround, as he used a holeshot to edge runner-up Alexis DeJoria (who entered the final round with the best average elapsed times in eliminations this year). John Force and Ron Capps were no threats in the final round.
Hight shared the winner's podium with Top Fuel colleague Austin Prock.
5. ‘Cuadra Quad,’ or ‘The Quadras?’ - Fans at xMAX Dragway got to witness a quartet of Cuadras on the track at the same time this weekend. All four of the Corral Boots Pro Stockers, driven by Fernando Cuadra Sr. and sons Fernando Jr., Cristian, and David, made historical four-abreast qualifying runs Saturday.
Seeing the family of luxury leathercrafters and bootmakers from Leόn, Guanajuato, Mexico, competing together at this final four-wide race of the year has been a dream for patriarch Fernando Cuadra Sr. He had hoped to do it at the previous race, at Las Vegas, but Top Sportsman regular David Cuadra still needed to complete his Pro Stock licensing passes.
In the end father Fernando Sr. missed the cut for eliminations, but his three sons qualified.
Fernando Cuadra Jr., the No. 15 starter, advanced to the final round but red-lit away his chance for a first victory. Twins Cristian and David Cuadra dropped out in the first round Sunday.
"Making it to the first final round of my career at a four-wide race is really incredible," Cuadra Jr. said "I know that our first win is close, and we just keep getting better. This is a great [Elite Motorsports] team, and I'm proud of my brother David for doing so well in his Pro Stock debut."
5a. "Stop Forrest, Stop" - Well, it was a good argument for a while. When Pro Modified racer Rickie Smith stopped the clocks during the Q3 session at 5.669 seconds at 252.47 miles per hour. He was almost .05 quicker than No. 2 qualifier Justin Bond.
“That was pretty badass,” Smith said. “I don’t know exactly where it come from, but I’ll take it.”
Such a moment might be the ultimate 'oops' moment for a drag racer who has long contended that the nitrous combination competes at a disadvantage.
“I don’t know. I mean, it’s got the exact same tune-up it had here last year,” Smith said. “I changed one thing in the car, and I don’t know if it’s just getting more nitrous when I’ve done that or what I’ve done, but that’s the exact same jets in this car here last year.”
Depending on which run doorslammer fans give more credibility, at a Northeast Outlaw Pro Mod event at Maryland International event back in 2019, Dean Marinis ran 5.572 seconds at 255.19 mph in the Harry Pappas-owned, Pat Musi Racing Engine-powered Camaro. - Bobby Bennett
6. All in the family: Husband, wife finish weekend as runners-up - Top Fuel racer Leah Pruett recorded the 10th runner-up finish of her career a few minutes after husband Tony Stewart took his career-second runner-up result in the Top Alcohol Dragster class.
Going for her 11th victory, Pruett came in second to Austin Prock, the John Force Racing driver she has met in eliminations four times in five events this year.
Stewart’s McPhillips Racing teammate Mike Coughlin used a triple holeshot to gain the victory in the quad that also included Julie Nataas and Cody Krohn. At 5.260 seconds, Stewart, making his third final in his first five races, had the quickest quarter-mile elapsed time of that final quad but had to settle for second place.
“I’m very proud of our performance. Every single time I’m in that car, it’s a rush, and the thing I love most about racing is this team and working together. Those are my highs,” Pruett said. “I have a lot of grit and get mad about things. Watching Tony runner-up and knowing what he felt, I wanted to win even more but didn’t quite get it done. Leaving here in third is something to hold our head high on moving forward. There’s always a small downside to it, because you can taste the win and we weren’t able to chew on it right there. We’re hungry, and we’re going to be eating soon.”
7. Who says Pro Stock Motorcycles aren’t entertaining? - The first round of Pro Stock Motorcycle eliminations produced plenty of drama Sunday. Gaige Herrera, No. 1 qualifier for the second of the season’s only two bike-class appearances so far this year, kept his momentum rolling. The Gatornationals winner – who already owns four of the Pro Stock Bikes’ top-10 elapsed times – advanced to the semifinal, then the final round once again. But the wild action for that quad happened after Herrera won in Round 2. Kelly Clontz also advanced out of the first round for only the fifth time in her career.
As she and Herrera made the turnout from the top end of the track, debuting rider Marcus Hylton plowed between them and into the sand pit on his Blake Gann-owned Pirana Racing entry.
Clontz – already wound up because she thought she lost, then learned she was moving on to the semifinal round – said of the near-collision, “I looked both ways. Mama taught me how to look both ways. I’m glad my buddy [Hylton] is all right. But he comes flyin’ by me, and I’m like, ‘Oh, my goodness!’”
Two quads earlier, John Hall timed out, as did an angry Jianna Evaristo. She contended that the lights on the Christmas Tree never came down.
But on another positive note, the finalists in this class were the top four qualifiers: Gaige Herrera, Eddie Krawiec, Matt Smith, and Steve Johnson.
So stay in your seats, folks, watch these racers, and go get your hot dogs some other time.
8. Funny Car star Hagan’s relationship with zMAX hits another snag - For Matt Hagan, zMAX Dragway has been the site of some of his coolest memories and some of his most spectacularly frightening ones. His first qualifying attempt Friday fell into the latter category.
At the end of his 326-mph run, the parachutes on his Operation Healing Forces Dodge failed to deploy, and he bounced across the sand trap and nose-first into the first catch fence. The front end of his car was demolished, the carbon-fiber body ripped apart like scrap paper. Safety Safari workers lifted it up and off the chassis and carried it away in pallbearer fashion.
“We got Operation Healing Forces on the side of the car. It looks like we’re going to have Operation Heal That Body a little bit,” an uninjured Hagan said after exiting his car and surveying the damage. “The solenoid pulls broke off [and I was] trying to do it manually, as well ... just nothing there. All you can do is just grab some brake and hang on for the ride. I thought I could get her slowed down so I could nose her in the sand, but she wouldn’t slow down enough. I’m good. Everything’s good. I just hate that it happened. You run one of these things long enough, something’s going to happen.”
Plenty has happened to him here. In 2012, his breathtaking engine explosion caught the attention of media worldwide. The year before, Hagan was the first Funny Car driver to break the four-second barrier with his 3.995-second pass, which prompted zMAX Dragway officials to post a commemorative sign on the retaining wall near the starting line. Today that elapsed time isn’t even one of the class’ top 10.
Between two-wide victories in 2011 and 2014, Hagan earned a four-wide trophy in 2013. He has raced in five final quads at this event (2010, 2013, 2016, 2017 and 2019).
But he said, maybe prophetically, even before the event started, “You still have to stay humble. These cars are a handful. They’re a handful to drive, and they’re a handful for the tuner. There is nothing easy about it. You can win a race and then roll to the next one and unload the car and not even go down the track. I’ve been there and done that, so as much as you think you have it figured out, these Funny Cars are funny.”
Hagan said, “We’re going to test our old back-up car on Tuesday, which will give us more confidence, as well, in case we need to pull it out.” Too late. The team had to press it into service, starting in Q2. Hagan lost in Sunday’s opening Funny Car foursome.
9. Hartford team motivated by missed details, substandard dinner - Matt Hartford and his Total Seal, CIP1, GETTRX Chevy team were perturbed enough by the shock of having the rear end of their Pro Stock Camaro lock up at the starting line during Friday night qualifying for the Circle K NHRA Four-Wide Nationals.
He said, “We went to bed last night really disappointed in the fact that we knew we had a car last night that could go to the pole.”
Maybe more distasteful was the fact that staying late at the track caused them to miss out on a decent dinner.
“Last night, getting out of here late and stopping at the wing place for dinner, none of us were in a good mood, even with the food we had to eat,” he said.
Saturday’s results were much easier to digest. Hartford rebounded early Saturday with a 6.538-second, 208.52-mph blast down the zMAX Dragway quarter-mile that earned him his second straight No. 1 qualifying position and second career No. 1 start.
“I think luck was on our side last night,” Hartford said, “because had we had that failure at 1,000 foot or even past the finish line last night, I think it'd be a whole different outcome today. And I'm not sure the car would be in one piece. So it was lucky for us that the car broke right here before we fired it up.
“We just regrouped and said, ‘OK, that run’s over. Come out here and we're first car out – which means we got to be pulled back some because the lane's not going to be as good – and let's just go up there and make a good run. We know we have enough to probably get into the top five, and if we make a great run, we'll go No. 1.’ And that's what we did,” he said.
“We have a great team. The Total Seal, CIP1, GETTRX Camaro is a rocket ship right now. It's the best car I've ever had. It's the best team I've ever had. And we're just going to see if we can start trying to capitalize on it,” Hartford said.
The team had a pep talk Friday night, and Hartford said, “The message was ‘Let's not try to overlook some of these details, because obviously there was a detail that we had overlooked. That is what cost us not to run last night. Overlooking these details makes us end up leaving the track really late and having to eat at places we don't want to eat.’ And that was really the message. It's like, if we do our job right, we can get out of here on time and have an enjoyable evening. Just focus on the details. We're all going to make mistakes. That was a complete team miss why we failed last night. There was not one individual – it was our entire team could have recognized that problem at some point in time, and we didn't. So it's on our checklist of ‘Here's another one of the million ways to losing in drag racing,’ and we'll not have that one again.”
Neither will they tolerate an unappetizing plate of yucky chicken wings.
10. Quotes: They said what?! - “You said the reason you wanted to interview me was so we didn’t have to listen to that anymore. ... No, I really wouldn’t.”
Tony Stewart to Hannah Rickards, referring to schlock-jockey Jason Logan’s “singing” and declining to participate in karaoke
“I’ve never experienced as much joy [as] I did being there for Tony and the McPhillips Racing’s team win. My heart was about to explode on the line, being so full of happiness for him. When it is something you work hard at and dedicate a great deal of time to and you watch someone do the same and have a contributing role in it, the enjoyment factor achieves a new height. Most specifically, Tony is a racer. And that tiger was very much starving for a win since getting out of the seat of the sprint car and NASCAR Cup cars.”
Top Fuel racer Leah Pruett, regarding husband Tony Stewart’s first NHRA victory earlier this month, at Las Vegas
“These things are cyclical, you know? You go through excellent winning streaks, and then you go through some difficult times. In the end, the teams that become championship teams and worthy of being champions in the fans’ eyes, are the ones that get through adversity. We don’t point fingers. We don’t get mad at each other. We gather information. We work hard. We test – and go out and win. We’ll find that place. We’re getting closer every day.”
Tony Schumacher, Top Fuel driver of the SCAG Power Equipment dragster
#6 - NHRA ROUTE 66 NATIONALS
Competition Plus’ Water-Cooler Topics From The Gerber Collision and Glass Route 66 Nationals at Joliet, Ill.
1. Camping World is out as series sponsor after 2024
The NHRA is seeking a new sponsor for its premier pro series. Jeffrey Young, NHRA’s vice-president of marketing and communications, confirmed Sunday that the drag-racing sanctioning body has been actively searching for a replacement for Camping World, which has decided not to renew its agreement with the final run of the 2024 season.
“Our contract expires at the end of next season. They let us know that they’re not going to renew that at the end of 2024. They said they’re going to invest that [money] in their employees,” Young said during the NHRA’s Gerber Glass and Collision Route 66 Nationals at Joliet, Ill.
“Our team’s out looking for a new sponsor. They’re out, pitching for the future and having a lot of conversations,” Young said. “We expect to make an announcement soon.” However, Young didn’t give a timetable for such an announcement.
Camping World replaced longtime NHRA sponsor Coca-Cola, whose various brands served as sponsor for the Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock, and Pro Stock Motorcycle programs. After Camping World CEO Marcus Lemonis admittedly enjoyed letting his negotiations and decision-making process play out on the social-media platform Twitter, the deal became official Oct. 4, 2020.
Young said, “We’re still working closely with Camping World this year to make sure we do things in our contract. We continue to push [that] they’re the great partner they are and they’ve been.”
2. Matt Hagan, Robert Hight lose early, open door for new winner
Matt Hagan and Robert Hight have passed the 2023 Wally trophies back and forth for the previous five races. But with them out – Hagan in the first round, Hight in the second – the door was open for a fresh winner. And Tim Wilkerson took advantage of it to claim his first victory since the 2021 fall Charlotte race.
The 1999 Chicago winner defeated Ron Capps in the final round for Maynard Wilkerson Racing’s first victory and said, “I’m trying to keep my emotions in check. I’m about to cry.”
3. Clay Millican claims third Top Fuel trophy, second at Chicago
“I still love my job. I’ve been doing it a long time and I’m not done yet,” Millican said after making a huge step toward a top-10 placing in the standings. He was 12th entering the race but has improved one spot.
“This is huge for this team. We’ve been struggling, and it’s been tough. We got all new parts and pieces from [team owner] Rick Ware, and they believed in us,” Millican said. “For a little while, it looked like we were better with the old stuff, but I think we’ve got it figured it out. And hopefully we can go out and get some more of these this year.
“My very first [NHRA] race was at this racetrack, and 20 years later I won this race. Now 25 years later [after that first race], we did it again. This group of people never quit and never stop, and they turned this car around flawlessly today,” he said.
4. Gaige Herrera remains undefeated in Pro Stock Motorcycle
The Vance & Hines newcomer has run the table (won from the No. 1 starting position and set low E.T. and top speed of the meet) at all three Pro Stock Motorcycle events this year, won Saturday’s #2Fast2Tasty Challenge, and at Joliet alone posted three of the four quickest runs in class history. His crew chief, Andrew Hines, calls the resident of nearby DeMotte, Ind., “flawless” and “a phenom” and said he’s proud to see Herrera “rise to the occasion. It’s a lot of pressure, and he’s feeling it now. The kid is just solid now.”
6. Joe, Cathi Maynard expand their NHRA footprint
The newly minted Maynard Ashley Racing team won’t look any different, really, on the racetrack. However, news Saturday that Max Out Motorsports (formerly Justin Ashley Racing & Davis Motorsports) and JCM Racing merged to form Maynard Ashley Racing will have implications more on the business side of the operation.
This new organization – separate from Maynard Wilkerson Racing in Funny Car and JCM on the Top Fuel side with Tony Schumacher – will campaign the Phillips Connect Toyota Dragster that Justin Ashley drives and Mike Green and Tommy DeLago tune. Maynard Ashley Racing (MAR) was founded with the purpose of delivering world-class results, on and off the racetrack, for a growing community of marketing partners and fans drawn to Ashley.
Behind Maynard Ashley Racing is a partnership between JCM Racing, led by emerging leaders Joe and Cathi Maynard, and Max Out Motorsports LLC, a newly formed powerhouse partnership between Justin Ashley, Dustin Davis, and Jim Epler.
Ashley said the first three seasons made “a wonderful, excellent, fantastic chapter, but it’s time for the next chapter. It’s about growth. It’s about stability on and off the racetrack. And now is the right time.
“This new team shows growth. It shows strength. It shows stability. And we want to be out here, doing this for a very long time, because this is what we love to do. And it's a business on and off the racetrack, and that's where our focus is,” the young driver said. “I have a lot of gratitude. I feel very blessed to be in the position that we're in now, to be able to announce today the formation of our new partnership ... to be able to take our program to the next level.
“Joe and the Maynard family have done such a fantastic job. We really want to be a part of their group,” Ashley said. “It’s getting a lot of really great people together to be able to discuss business and be on the racetrack.”
7. NHRA’s 2023 season has some surprises in its first quarter
As the current campaign has rounded the quarter-pole and six of 21 races are in hand, more than a few racers across the pro landscape have yet to score a victory.
In the Top Fuel class, among those seeking a first victory of 2023 are Brittany Force, Steve Torrence, Tony Schumacher, Shawn Langdon, Josh Hart, Doug Kalitta, and Leah Pruett. In Funny Car, John Force, Ron Capps, J.R. Todd, Bob Tasca III, and Alexis DeJoria have yet to record a victory. Erica Enders, Greg Anderson, and Bo Butner are looking in Pro Stock, too. Same for Matt Smith and Eddie Krawiec – and everybody in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class but Gaige Herrera – want a bike-class Wally.
Curiously, Brittany Force and her brother-in-law, IndyCar veteran driver Graham Rahal, happened to be on their respective racetracks at the same time Sunday afternoon. She was facing Clay Millican for the chance to advance to the Top Fuel final round at Route 66 Raceway, and Rahal was making his last-chance effort to earn a berth in next Sunday’s Indianapolis 500. She lost to Millican, and Rahal failed to qualify. His own Rahal Letterman Lanigan teammate Jack Harvey aced him out by .007 mph (229.166 to 229.159). Brittany’ Force’s sister, former Funny Car driver Courtney Force, who’s married to Rahal, comforted her sobbing husband with a pat on the shoulder.
8. T.J. Zizzo lives up to his self-described ‘Super Part-Timer’ label
The long-time Top Fuel driver from Lincolnshire, Ill., coined the term “super part-timers” to describe himself and others who might not race full-time but are trophy contenders who have earned respect from their peers when they do show up. And Zizzo, who hadn’t been to a race in about two years, didn’t disappoint.
He anchored the field of 16 and upset top qualifier Mike Salinas in the opening round of eliminations Sunday, then defeated Leah Pruett in the quarterfinals.
That semifinal appearance (which ended with a loss to Josh Hart) earned him a berth in the Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge that will take place at the next race, the June 2-4 New England Nationals at Epping N.H.
It was unclear Sunday whether the Zizzo team would make the trip to the racetrack north of Boston where they raced many times in IHRA competition. If he does not, the opportunity falls to Jacob McNeal, who distinguished himself in Scott Palmer’s dragster by knocking out title contender and two-time 2023 winner Justin Ashley in the first round. If McNeal would pass on the chance, Pruett would be next in line to participate.
9. Alexis DeJoria joins elite group of drag-racing women
Alexis DeJoria, the first woman in Funny Car to qualify for 100 races, also is the first to reach 200 in the class, and she becomes the sixth woman to have competed in 200 or more events. Top Fuel’s Leah Pruett is on track to make her 200th race this August at Brainerd, Minn.
Pro Stock’s Erica Enders heads the list, with this event marking her 340th. Pro Stock Motorcycle’s Angelle Sampey has the second-most starts (292), and her bike-class associate, Karen Stoffer, follows with 276. Brittany Force (Top Fuel) is 18 races past 200, and motorcycle racer Angie Smith is at 212.
Ten pro drag-racing women – including Leah Pruett, Courtney Force, Melanie Troxel, and Shirley Muldowney – are in triple digits. Ashley Force Hood, who stopped racing after 2010, had 92 Funny Car appearances, and Top Fuel racer Hillary Will logged 70 races before 2008.
10. Wilkerson launches ‘Route 66 Raceway In 2024’ campaign
Funny Car winner Tim Wilkerson made a plea to drag-racing fans Sunday:
“Everybody out there, please, please get on social media, call NHRA, call whoever the hell owns this place – I don’t know who owns it – and tell them we want to do this some more! This is a great facility. It’s crazy – to have it locked up for the last two years is dumb,” he said. He remarked about the strong crowd, as well. And he said he’s starting the grassroots campaign now.
#7 - NHRA NEW ENDLAND NATIONALS
Competition Plus’ Water-Cooler Topics From The NHRA New England Nationals in Epping, NH.
1. Mother Nature is a Party Pooper - The big winner this past weekend at New England Dragway at the 10th NHRA New England Nationals was the weather. It wreaked havoc on the race schedule, befuddled tuners, frustrated drivers, and drove away maybe even the hardiest fans on the Camping World Drag Racing Series tour. A few moments of racing, though, produced some noteworthy results.
The weather was cussed and discussed all weekend. Leah Pruett had it pegged when she said Saturday afternoon, “This is already an extreme weekend.” The weather-related strategizing stretched well into Monday afternoon, when the NHRA finally decided they needed to throw in the soggy towel. That’s another blow for the earnest Joe Lombardo and his staff at the Epping, N.H. dragstrip after COVID restrictions robbed them of hosting this race in 2020. The event will finish later this week at Bristol Dragway.
2. #2Hot2Tasty turns into #2Wet2Cold - Had the weekend progressed as planned, Leah Pruett and Clay Millican would have been going head-to-head for the $10,000, winner-take-all prize in the Mission #2Fast2Tasty Challenge for Top Fuel, along with appropriate bonus points. Ron Capps and Tim Wilkerson would have met in the final round of the Funny Car version of the specialty race. But because of Saturday’s rainout following the Q2 session, the competition was waived off. No one will receive bonus points this time, and the participants will split the purse. Millican and Capps each will receive $5,000 as the quickest first-round winners Saturday. Pruett and Wilkerson will each receive $1,500, and each of the remaining drivers will receive $500.
3. Chad Green gets his first No. 1 - Funny Car’s Chad Green was the first racer Friday to make it the full length of the track under power, and his 4.100-second elapsed time was enough to secure his career-first No. 1 qualifying position.
4. Brown Makes The Most of the Weather Window - Top Fuel’s Antron Brown took advantage of the small window of opportunity Saturday, swiping the No. 1 qualifying position from Friday leader Leah Pruett with a 3.729-second run at 329.99 mph. The No. 1 qualifier was his 50th No. 1 qualifier of his career.
5. Zizzo, McNeal Pass On Epping Special Program - T.J. Zizzo earned the right to race in the Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge but chose not to attend the event. That tossed the privilege to Scott Palmer Racing’s Jacob McNeal, who also passed. Leah Pruett was next in line, and she gratefully accepted the offer – and won her first round of competition Saturday. Considering the weather-related disappointment, maybe Zizzo and McNeal made wise choices.
6. Light Car Counts in Epping - After overflow fields at Joliet, Ill., two weeks before, the nitro fields at New England Dragway were short. The Top Fuel class had only 13 entrants, and the Funny Car category was one short of a full contingent.
7. Alexander Makes Up for Friday Snafu - Blake Alexander was lucky that the Funny Car class got in one Saturday qualifying session. He missed the Friday chances to lock in an advantageous starting spot in the Funny Car order, because he missed out altogether Friday. Team owner Jim Head is a seasoned pilot who flies himself and some crew members to the races aboard his personal plane. This time, his plane experienced a mechanical problem before taking off from Columbus, Ohio, so Head and a significant portion of the crew didn’t arrive at Epping in time to prep the car and have Alexander make a pass Friday. He claimed the No. 12 spot in the lineup.
8. Schumacher Gets His Piece in the Valley - Tony Schumacher, Top Fuel’s most successful driver ever, found out this past weekend that he will be inducted this coming weekend into the Legends of Thunder Valley hall of fame at Bristol Dragway. The SCAG dragster driver, when he was driving with U.S. Army sponsorship, won the Top Fuel trophy at Bristol in 2004, 2008-10, 2012, and 2018 and was runner-up there in 2001 and 2016. He has qualified No. 1 there four times (2004, 2006-08). He’ll become the 20th member of the prestigious club that includes his own father, 2014 inductee Don Schumacher.
9. OMG... was the FCC listening? - It’s a slow news watch when the biggest “Ohmygosh!” moments of the weekend just might have been the remarks by Dan Wilkerson and Big Jim Dunn. Perhaps Wilkerson, Chad Green’s crew chief, set the tone Friday when he, forgetting he was speaking on the public-address microphone, said ... well, one of those seven words comedian George Carlin said you can’t say on television. Then early Saturday, when his driver, Alex Laughlin, jumped to the No. 3 starting position with a 4.190-second E.T., team owner Dunn explained their success in an enlightening way: “You pray a lot, cross your fingers, and say, ‘Bulls---.’” Who knew?
10. Pro Stock classes missing from the show - The Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle classes did not compete at Epping, N.H., but both will be back in action this coming weekend at the Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol, Tenn.
#8 - NHRA THUNDER VALLEY NATIONALS
Competition Plus’ Water-Cooler Topics From The NHRA's Thunder Valley Nationals in Bristol, Tenn.
1. The Three-Ring Circus Was A Hit - The Thunder Valley Nationals had to share its thunder with the New England Nationals, combining the rained-out Epping, N.H., event with the regularly scheduled one at Bristol, Tenn.
Kudos to the NHRA for pulling off the three-ring circus at Bristol Dragway, as the Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge/NHRA Challenges were added to the show. But Mother Nature deserves another huge “Boo!” for Sunday’s early rain delay during eliminations.
Under the Bristol Big Top (or is it “Rocky Top”?), here were some of the more entertaining acts:
Justin Ashley wins his third and fourth Top Fuel events this year, as well as the Mission Foods Challenge for the third time.
“I think I might need a nap. It has been a long week to get to this race,” said Ashley. “I feel so, so grateful and so, so happy. Anytime there is an opportunity to win, it is special – but when you have the opportunity to win three races in one weekend, especially at a historic facility like Bristol, it just makes it that much more special.”
His Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge victory yielded $10,000 and three prized Countdown bonus points. That total payout eclipsed Josh Hart’s $80,000 Pep Boys All-Star Call-Out haul from back in March at Gainesville, Fla., as the season’s biggest jackpot.
Ashley rocketed from fourth place to first, regaining the points lead he earned after winning in April at Pomona. Ashley also won the March event at Phoenix.
Incidentally, Top Fuel’s Tony Schumacher had been the most recent racer to win two Wally statues in the same weekend – and his crew chief that day in September 2014, at Dallas, was Mike Green, now Ashley’s tuner. (Green’s assistant, Tommy DeLago, said immediately afterward of Green, “He’s a bad mo-fo, ain’t he?”)
2. An emotional Bob Tasca III wins in Funny Car at his “home-track” race – 850 miles to the south of it - They both were seeking their first victory of the season, and Rhode Island native Bob Tasca III denied 155-time winner John Force in Saturday’s make-up from rain-postponed New England Nationals. He also claimed the winner’s $10,000 and three Countdown bonus points in the simultaneous Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge.
“I would have gone to Alaska to get this trophy,” Tasca said. “It's a win that I've always dreamed about, winning at a racetrack I grew up at. It's the first track I ever went down. But we just felt like this whole season was building for us. I’m just so impressed with [crew chiefs] Todd Okuhara and Aaron Brooks and the team.
“I went up to Force before I got in the car, and I said, ‘Force, I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for you.’ To race John Force in the finals, at his age  to do what he does out here, it'll never be done by anybody. I have so much respect for John. There's no one I get up for like that. If I have to win a race in the final round and have John Force alongside me for the New England Nationals trophy, it's going to be a long time before I forget that win.” Tasca was making his 27th final. It was Force’s 265th.
3. Erica Enders beginning to get back in her winning groove - As cathartic as it was Friday, before racing started, to grind on her couch-potato, Cheetos-chomping, “Internet idiot” critics, winning the Thunder Valley Nationals Pro Stock final Sunday afternoon, for victory No. 44 overall and the first of this season, was even more so.
The five-time and reigning champion claimed her first No. 1 qualifying performance of the season and 30th of her career Saturday. She said, “We don't really have to say anything. Our scoreboard will do the talking, as it always has in the past. We’ve made big strides in the right direction for our whole organization.” Indeed, her Elite Motorsports team swept the top three qualifying positions, and teammate Aaron Stanfield won Saturday in the NHRA Pro Stock Challenge over class steamroller Dallas Glenn in the final. He gained cash for Elite Motorsports and precious Countdown points that he’ll receive once the regular season ends.
“I didn’t forget how to drive. Jake Hairston and Kyle Bates didn’t forget how to build horsepower. Richard Freeman did not forget how to run a team,” Enders said with the confident authority that had been waiting to show up all season. “Pro Stock has been this way for the 20 years I’ve been driving and the 20 years prior that I watched. The pendulum swings, and when it’s not swinging in your direction, it’s extremely painful. But it always comes back.”
So does Enders, who said, “It’s peaks and valleys. What we’ve been through together would tear most teams apart. And it’s what’s so coveted about our team. You can’t buy what we have,” she said.
Before qualifying started, she said, “I’m not worried. I’m really not. I have full confidence that everything will turn around. And if it doesn’t, it’s not going to change my life. We’re not curing cancer. This isn’t the end-all, be-all.” She said Sunday as she admired her trophy that it means “more than most people will understand.”
As for those anonymous know-it-alls, Enders said Friday, “I’ve deleted all my social-media apps off my phone because I want to strangle idiots on the Internet that have no clue what they’re talking about. They sit on their couch and eat Cheetos and they watch us race, and they think they can be a Monday-morning quarterback when we’re doing all that we can. At the same time, it’s part of living in a fishbowl, right? The human aspect is it’s not always easy. It sucks to suck. It’s awful, because you spend the same amount of money and work just as hard. Some mornings you wake up and have to talk yourself into it.”
She’s not having that problem now.
4. It turns out that Gaige Herrera really is beatable - Steve Johnson laughed after racing his way into the final round against Vance & Hines juggernaut Gaige Herrera and said, “You need a lot more than motivation to beat Gaige. We all know he has an awesome bike, but we do, too.”
He said, “I said I was going to throw the kitchen sink at it,” he said of his effort to be the first to stop the dominating young Mission Foods Suzuki phenom – “but we didn’t have a kitchen sink.”
Whatever Johnson had, it was enough Sunday. And it didn’t hurt that Herrera made one of his rare mistakes in that fourth final-round appearance of the season, jumping off the starting line .011 of a second too early and disqualifying himself.
Johnson, who entered the weekend with a 2-3 race-day record, capitalized for his 12th triumph in 31 final rounds.
5. Snap-on’s Nick Pinchuk wows with speech - The Chairman and CEO of the American-proud tool company gave a rousing patriotic pep talk Saturday that was worthy of any U.S. Presidential campaign.
“I travel all over the world, and I just got back from London. And I can say this: That this is the greatest country in the world. Historians will tell you that it is because we know how to create things – from sea to shining sea, from the very beginning,” Pinchuk said in an interview with track announcer Joe Castello.
“And if you want further evidence of this, you can go back to the pandemic ... when one-third of America was sheltering in place but the people of work were standing firm, keeping society from disintegrating. Mechanics and factory workers and truck drivers, they are the soul of America. They were yesterday. They are today. And they will be tomorrow. And what better place to show it off than right here?”
He said, “I have to thank the NHRA for giving us the opportunity to send this message to the nation, because it’s an important one.”
Snap-on, a longtime supporter of Funny Car two-time champion Cruz Pedregon, is celebrating its 103th year in business. He didn’t hesitate to answer when asked to tell the secret of the firm’s longevity.
“We know who we are,” Pinchuk said. “We help the people of work, enable them to do the most difficult tasks. We put out a product they can be proud of and display to the world that they know they are professionals. And we keep doing that over and over again. We are a people who know we make a difference. We keep doing that, and it’s the secret to 100 years. And it’ll be the secret to 200 years.”
Competition Plus quoted Pinchuk as saying in a Q&A session for the crowd, “There’s no more American sport than NHRA. It’s got the qualities: Power, ingenuity, teamwork, and other things that have made America great. So we invest in this [sport]. Power’s rolling down the strip – 11,000 horsepower.
“You can go in the pits, and you can see ingenuity and teamwork with Snap-on, fixing and rebuilding engines. And we enable courage by investing 27 years with Cruz Pedregon, one of the most courageous drivers. We feel really privileged to be here,” he said. “I encourage everybody to come out here every time they get near an NHRA event, because it’s a great event. I wouldn’t miss it.”
Snap-on’s Fixers just might be the ones Pedregon calls after he experienced trouble on his first-round burnout. What he called a “high-speed wobble” made his car lurch to the right immediately. After he shut the car off and it was pushed off the line, Pedregon was seen shaking his hands, indicating he might have been hurt a bit. He covered his eyes and shut his visor, as well. Later Pedregon said that the car’s unexpected move “ripped” the steering wheel from his hands and he worried for a minute or two about injured fingers. He said he thought about not only himself but also opponent Alexis DeJoria and decided to cut off the engine for safety’s sake.
6. Ron Capps becomes Bristol Dragway’s No. 1 pro winner - It would be no surprise if Bristol Dragway honored Ron Capps as a Legend of Thunder Valley when the Camping World Drag Racing Series comes back to this historic East Tennessee dragstrip. He would have earned it.
The second-year Funny Car team owner secured his second straight and seventh overall victory here with his 30-foot winning margin against Alexis DeJoria. This year’s Wally trophy goes with the ones from here from the 2001, 2006, 2012, 2017, 2018, and 2022 events.
Borrowing a line from Top Fuel’s Bristol-loving Mike Salinas, Capps said in his post-race celebration that he ought to buy a home in the area because “this place loves me.”
7. STRUT = Steve Torrence Racing with Undeniable Temerity - Four-time Top Fuel champion Steve Torrence is racing with confidence again. He has led the standings for much of the season, has started in the top half of the field at every race and had two runner-up finishes and final-quad appearances at the two four-wide events. But now that seven races are in hand, Torrence approaches his 300th start (likely at the end of the Western Swing, at Denver) with renewed chutzpah. This weekend he said, “We’ve got to establish that dominance we once had. We let it slip. We let these guys catch their breath, and we’re here to choke ‘em now.” Torrence lost Sunday in Round 2 to Doug Kalitta.
“It was just a matter of time before Doug started making noise,” Torrence said. “I just wish he hadn’t made it against us. The big thing is we’ve got our race car back. We qualified solid (third, at 3.753 seconds on the 1,000-foot course), we were the only car in the [3.]60s, and in that second round, we ran exactly what we wanted to run. We thought it would be good enough.”
He said, “Losing the point lead to Justin? I’ve got to admit, that stung a little bit. But like I’ve said before, the only time it’s really important to be No. 1 is in November after the last run at the In-N-Out Finals. We’ll just keep doing what we do.”
9. Tony Schumacher follows father into Legends of Thunder Valley hall of fame - Tony Schumacher, the most successful Top Fuel driver in NHRA history, became the 22nd inductee into Bristol Dragway’s Legends of Thunder Valley, the historic track’s official hall of fame, Saturday. Six of his 86 victories have come at this racetrack in the hills of east Tennessee. He also advanced to the finals of Saturday’s conclusion of the rain-delayed New England Nationals.
“Whenever that U.S. Army dragster pulled into the staging lanes at Bristol Dragway, you had a pretty good feeling that it was going to win,” said Jerry Caldwell, president and general manager of Bristol Motor Speedway & Dragway. “Tony Schumacher was dominating at Thunder Valley in the 2000s, and his success here mirrored his success on the NHRA national circuit as he raced to 86 career victories and eight championship[s]. We are so pleased to induct him this weekend, and for all of his great accomplishments here, he is well-deserving of the honor to be forever known as a Legend of Thunder Valley.”
Schumacher is only the third member to be inducted while he is still an active racer, joining 2016 inductee John Force and 2007 honoree Rickie Smith. Both Force and Smith competed here this weekend.
“I just love this track. I’ve always loved racing here,” Schumacher said. “This recognition means a lot. It’s the first hall of fame for me. This is a great track and such a beautiful facility, and I love the people here. It’s also a challenging track. You have to be on your game to race here with the changing weather conditions.
“When you look up there and see all the great names up there [on the Legends of Thunder Valley sign above the grandstands], it’s such an honor to join them. Bristol has always been a great racetrack for me, and I’ve had great success and won here with several different crew chiefs. I’ve been blessed to have great people behind me, and that’s what makes it all go.”
Toyota dominates in the nitro ranks Sunday, fielding both Top Fuel finalists and both Funny Car finalists
10. Justin Ashley’s historic Top Fuel double-up as both the New England Nationals on Saturday and Thunder Valley Nationals on Sunday highlighted the all-Toyota nitro showdowns. - Ashley defeated Toyota partner Antron Brown, who scored his 800th career round-win Sunday. Brown is the sixth driver in NHRA history to earn 800 elimination-round victories.
In the Funny Car class, Ron Capps celebrated the anniversary of his first Toyota triumph by taking his Toyota Gazoo Racing Supra back to the Bristol Dragway winners circle for the second consecutive and seventh total time in his career. In notching his 74th Funny Car victory, Capps defeated fellow Toyota Supra driver Alexis DeJoria in the final round.
Ashley’s feat Sunday marked Toyota’s 199th victory in the NHRA. So it has a chance to hit the No. 200 milestone at the next race, at Norwalk, Ohio.
Ashley said his gratitude for the Toyota support “is very, very deep – the talent pool that we have. I am so grateful that we have Toyota Gazoo Racing North America and Slugger [Labbe] and Paul [Flynn] and all of the people from that team that not only provide us with the data and information that we need, but treat us like family. When you are part of Toyota Racing, you are part of the Toyota family, and we all have each other and we all work together. Going into that final round, against our Toyota teammate, and knowing, no matter what happened in front of us it was going to be a Toyota double-up and we are inching closer to a 200th win for Toyota is really amazing. It speaks volumes on Toyota – to be able to put all of the time, energy, effort, and commitment that have into the sport of NHRA drag racing – really is beyond measure.”
#9 - NHRA SUMMIT RACING EQUIPMENT
Competition Plus’ Water-Cooler Topics From The Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals...
1. Top Fuel winner Pruett gets her licks in - Leah Pruett said her favorite ice cream flavor is “anything but vanilla.” So what? Here’s what: She said she never before had partaken of the trademark ice-cream smorgasbord the Bader Family has offered at Summit Racing Equipment Motorsports Park. This time she did, Saturday after qualifying first in the Top Fuel field. And now she has her own specially designed ice-cream scoop that goes exclusively to the winners of this event.
In earning her scoop, her trophy, the points, and the cash, Pruett cooled down red-hot class powerhouse Justin Ashley. It was the Dodge Direct Connection Dragster driver’s first victory of the season, 11th overall in Top Fuel, and Tony Stewart Racing’s first victory in Top Fuel this year and second altogether.
It also was Pruett’s first trip to the winners circle since last July’s Denver race – the Dodge-sponsored Mile-High Nationals, which happens to be next on the Camping World Drag Racing Series schedule.
She said she and her Neal Strausbaugh/Mike Domagala-led team kept telling each other that a victory was near: “It’ll come. It’ll come.” But she said that was starting to get old. So now the message, she said, is “We’re not going to let up.”
Pruett thanked her husband, Stewart, for providing the team that’s in its second year of competition.
“This is a built, not bought, team,” she declared.
2. Alexander emotional after joining elite nitro winners club - Never mind that it was Blake Alexander’s first victory since the 2018 Sonoma event, when he won in a Top Fuel dragster. Never mind that in the Funny Car final round Sunday he, as a representative of a single-car team, defeated three-time series champion and three-time 2023 winner Matt Hagan. Never mind that he became just the 18th driver in NHRA’s 65-plus-year history to win in both nitro classes – just like team owner Jim Head did in 1996 at Topeka.
“We wanted it,” Alexander said. “We felt like more of a professional race team as the day went on.” What helped was the fact he was able to do some testing at Indianapolis Raceway Park this past Tuesday.
Alexander, who had described his Sonoma victory five years ago as “peaceful,” was anything but placid at the top end of the track immediately after exiting his Ford Mustang.
“This is hard! This is hard!” he said, pointing to his car and referring to the intensity of competition in the Camping World Drag Racing Series. He said being strong repetitively is difficult and praised Hagan for doing so. “He motivated me,” Alexander said of his final-round opponent.
And he said, “Thanks to all the people who put up with my s---.” Holding the Wally trophy and his own ice-cream scoop that Norwalk winners traditionally receive, an emotional Alexander said the victory is for “waking up at four o’clock in the morning” and tackling the task of finding funding for the chance to race, something for which he said he lives and breathes. And it’s for the sometimes-heartbreaking journey, including the highway fatality involving beloved crew member Dylan Cromwell in October 2021.
Alexander recorded his career-first victory at Norwalk, which happens to be in Head’s home state of Ohio. “We’re comfy out here,” he said after winning his semifinal match-up against top qualifier Bob Tasca III.
So a lot of emotions and memories played into Alexander’s victory celebration. Head, meanwhile, quipped, “Finally – I get to retire now.” But he immediately said he was kidding, although he did say he finally let his race car prove itself.
3. Pro Stock winner Hartford ready to win some more - Like Top Fuel’s Leah Pruett, Pro Stock owner-driver Matt Hartford will be a winner as he returns in three weeks to Bandimere Speedway, site of his previous victory. Hartford took his Total Seal/Rottler Chevy Camaro from the No. 1 starting spot to the winners circle Sunday and at least partially fulfilled a wish he expressed Saturday evening.
“We need to go in [the Countdown] with as many points as we can. We want to get some more semifinal and final rounds and get into the [Challenge] again, because there’s points there,” Hartford said, convinced that “right now, we have a chance to win the championship. It’s our best chance we’ve ever had.”
Hartford easily defeated Dallas Glenn, who had advanced to his fifth final round in the past six races. With that, he claimed his sixth overall victory and first of the year in his second final-round appearance.
In the rematch of the Pomona Pro Stock final, Hartford atoned for four losses to Glenn earlier this season.
“People asked if we could win again,” Hartford said. “Guess what? We can.”
4. Arana Jr. repeats family feat at Norwalk as Pro Stock Bike winner - It wasn’t the site of his first victory like it was his father’s. But Hector Arana Jr. defeated Steve Johnson in the Pro Stock Motorcycle final to etch his own name in the Summit Racing Equipment Motorsports Park record book.
For the second-generation racer, the victory was the 18th of his career. And Dad said, “How sweet it is!”
Arana Jr. defeated Wesley Wells and the husband-wife team of Matt and Angie Smith. Matt Smith is the five-time and reigning bike-class champion, and Angie Smith just the day before had beaten Arana Jr. in the bonus specialty race during qualifying.
“We had an awesome bike,” he said, acknowledging that he had learned from and made up for a mistake he had made in the Saturday race-within-a-race when he faced Angie Smith in that final round.
Arana, who returned to the class last October and immediately delivered victories at Dallas and Las Vegas for sponsor GETTRX, won for the first time since then.
5. Cathi Maynard passes away - Cathi Maynard, one of NHRA’s biggest fans and supporters, passed away Thursday after a courageous 35-year battle with multiple sclerosis.
As a team tribute to her said, “It was no secret that she loved fast cars and high horsepower, and as an Army veteran, Maynard quickly adopted Tony Schumacher as her favorite race-car driver. She was the driving force behind the Maynard family becoming involved in drag racing, first as sponsors in 2021 before forming JCM Racing during the 2022 season, and fans of ‘The Sarge’ can credit Maynard for his return to full-time competition after a multi-year hiatus from the sport.”
Schumacher said, “She was such a fighter, such an amazing person, and she’s in a better place. It’s a privilege to have known her, and I would say, by far, I’m a better man for knowing her. She was so kind and so good to people. No one that met her left a lesser person.”
She was the inspiration for her family’s latest Camping World Drag Racing Series property: Maynard Ashley Racing.
After claiming his fourth Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge victory, Top Fuel racer Justin Ashley said, “We have been fortunate to win several races, and this year, several Mission Food Challenges, but this one stands out. Believe it or not, this win is more significant than any of the others we’ve had this year” because the news of Cathi Maynard’s passing still was fresh in everyone’s mind.
He said Saturday, “We all got together this morning, and RFC [Racers for Christ] did a great job of saying a team prayer, and a bunch of teams were involved with it. It was an emotional day. We know we have an angel with us, Cathi. Joe (Maynard) Joe (Maynard) Sr. – we are all thinking about them. It’s an emotional day – a tough day, but to be able to turn on another win light for Cathi, all that she’s done for so many of us out here, really is tremendously, tremendously meaningful.”
6. Tasca delivers news that Funny Car fans shouldn’t focus just on Capps, Hagan, Hight - After Bob Tasca III earned his third No. 1 qualifier in nine races, reassuring him that his Funny Car program is headed in the right direction, he at once showed his vulnerability and his control in a candid conversation about his journey of the past seven months.
“There weren’t many who would put $5 on me after my previous crew chiefs pretty much fired me, right? So I got fired by everyone but two people. I hired all the people that they fired to get my team. And at the end of the day, what sweet serendipity it was, right?” he said.
“It just goes to show you, uou can have a lot of talent, but hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard,” Tasca said. “That’s the harsh reality of it.
“These guys, maybe on paper, aren’t as talented as the team I had last year. But they’re the hardest-working group of people I’ve ever been around, ever – [with] attention to detail like I’ve never seen in my racing career,” he said.
The magic that money often can’t buy and that even genius can’t guarantee comes from chemistry.
“I’ve given them all the parts and pieces that they’ve needed,” Tasca said of his current team that’s pointing him in the right direction, probably to the surprise of people who thought the Funny Car crown would be a tug-o-war among Ron Capps, Matt Hagan, and Robert Hight. “The one piece that you never know when you go in – and I started with zero going into this season – is chemistry. Will the chemistry work between the crew chiefs and the team? And do you have two crew chiefs or one?
“I thought I had an incredible combination with Todd [Okuhara] and Aaron [Brooks]. And now I know I have an incredible combination,” he said. “When you get the chemistry – like catching lightning in a bottle – you want to keep it in that bottle.
“I’m just fortunate to have had the opportunity to pull together the guys that are on this car right now – a little bit out of desperation at the time – with the hopes of doing something special. And man, from the first run at testing at Gainesville till now, they ain’t doubting us anymore, I can tell you that much,” Tasca said.
8. Greg Stanfield shows off Factory X (FX) Chevrolet COPO Camaro - The NHRA declined Saturday to reveal the performance numbers for Greg Stanfield’s inaugural exhibition pass in the freshly minted Chevrolet COPO Camaro at Summit Racing Equipment Motorsports Park – resulting in some rousing boos from the crowd. But insiders suggested that it clocked a six-second run in the 190-mph range in its maiden voyage down the northern Ohio quarter-mile.
This new Factory X presented by Holley class, or “FX,” will feature the COPO Camaro, Dodge Challenger Drag Pak, and Ford Mustang Cobra Jet, and 2019-and-newer manufactured automobiles.
According to NHRA reports, National Tech Director Lonnie Grim said, “Our intention is this will become a heads-up category at select NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series events in 2023 and will continue to be included in Competition Eliminator across all divisions. This class will be one more solid addition to the exciting lineup of very quick NHRA doorslammer classes, and there is incredible potential in this class. The fact that it is manually shifted with strong performance capability will allow fans to enjoy the sounds of 10,000 RPM.”
The FX class will have a minimum weight limit of 2,650 pounds, which is nearly 1,000 pounds lighter than a Factory Stock Showdown car. Every car in the class must have a manual transmission. Each body must be OEM-dimensional as well, so no alterations to the bodies will be allowed. Each car must have a steel roof and quarter-body panels, and the chassis on the cars must meet certain technical specifications. And FX cars must race on tires are 33 inches tall and 10.5 inches wide – wider than those on FSS cars.
Grim said engineers have “brought a lot of new technology into this class, and it will be a 100-percent stock-dimensional car. It’s going to be a really exciting class that embraces technology and affordability and has huge potential from a performance standpoint. It should also be very exciting for the fans, from the standpoint they can be in the stands and said, ‘Hey, I drove one of those to the racetrack today,’ and then watch one of these cars make a great run down the track.”
9. Justin Ashley bags fourth #2Fast2Tasty trophy - After winning the specialty races four times, Ashley said his team is “very impressive” and that “we did a really good job of establishing a foundation. But we feel it’s time to take that next step, and for us, that’s winning a championship.” This achievement, he said, “speaks volumes to the team that we have and to the mindset that we have. It is very easy to win races and then get complacent, but that is not what this group is about. Just each race in its own sphere – we don’t worry about the future, we don’t worry about the past, but taking one round and one race at a time. All of this winning stuff is great, and it’s far from just me. It’s a full team effort. When you surround yourself with so many good people, good things happen. So just leaning on others that have experience is helpful. We are focused on getting better, not worrying about what is going on off the race track, but just focused on what is happening in the driver’s seat. It has resulted in a lot of success.”
Other winners of the specialty race for semifinalists from the previous event were Ron Capps (Funny Car), Deric Kramer (Pro Stock), and Angie Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle).
After defeating fellow finalist Robert Hight to win the bonus race for the second time this season, Capps said, “I’d love to give the trophy to Mr. [Bill] Bader and all these Norwalk fans. These fans are unbelievable. The championships, races – everything – has to go through that car with [crew chief] Jimmy Prock and Robert Hight. I would like to think most of the teams say the same thing about our NAPA [Toyota Supra]. I don’t even know what the money is for winning it, but we get three championship points that go in our bank, and that is huge.” Surely Capps knows by now that it’s $10,000.
Get Biofuel Camaro driver Kramer, who outran Greg Anderson, said, “If you do well in this, you get that confidence, and it keeps building and building. At this point, there’s nothing we can’t do.”
Denso Buell racer Smith said she’s seizing every opportunity she can get because “you don’t know when you’re going to get the next one. Now we have to be on our A game.” And that, she noted, goes for Saturday qualifying, as well as Sunday eliminations.
10. They know how to turn a phrase - Using theme-park jargon, Ron Capps described his rather wild late-Friday-night qualifying run – in which he got close to the wall, lost clear visibility at about the 700-foot mark on the 1,000-foot course, and said clutch dust was flying around – as “an E Ticket ride.” That describes a theme park attraction that’s the most thrilling, danger-tinged, or popular ride.
And Doug Foley dubbed this event ”Indy 1” because of the high number of entrants and the fact the U.S. Nationals is expected to attract the same volume and the same faces.
After defeating 16-time champion John Force for the first time in three consecutive meetings then beating three-time and reigning champion Ron Capps in eliminations Sunday, J.R. Todd – a Funny Car king himself – expressed respect for both opponents and said, “So far, it looks like we’re G.O.A.T. hunting.”
Steve Johnson said Pro Stock Motorcycle expert George Bryce gave him the secret to success on the Mac-Rack Suzuki: “Open the hood and shove as much money as you can underneath it.”
Top Alcohol Funny Car’s Bob McCosh, a first-time winner after 40 years of trying, coined the term “tinkeritis” – something he doesn’t want to have. He said “tinkeritis” causes someone to tinker with the car to the point of missing the opportunity to win.
#10 - NHRA MILE HIGH NATIONALS
Competition Plus’ Water-Cooler Topics From The NHRA Mile-High Nationals from Bandimere Speedway
1. Top Fuel winner Clay Millican stomps on loud pedal, competition - After polishing off Tony Schumacher in the opening round, Top Fuel’s Clay Millican said Sunday marked only his second Round 1 victory in 10 races this year. And he was quick to mention that the other time he advanced, he won, at Joliet, Ill., in May.
He said, “We’re going to step on that loud pedal three more times.”
And he did, taking the Parts Plus Dragster to the winners circle for his first – and last – triumph at Bandimere Speedway’s Dodge Power Brokers Mile-High Nationals.
The Tennessee anthem “Rocky Top” blared in th background, but this wasn’t Millican’s beloved Rocky Top, where he recorded his über-emotional first NHRA victory at his home-state track, Bristol Dragway. Nevertheless, it was on this mountain that the popular West Tennessee driver gave Rick Ware Racing its second victory of the season.
Millican denied final-round opponent Doug Kalitta his long-sought 50th victory in registering his fifth.
Millican, son of grocery-store owners in Drummonds, Tenn., asked the crowd to give one last cheer to the Bandimeres, saying, “I grew up in a family business. You never have a day off. You never have a vacation.” And he saluted his crew, who he said doesn’t ever complain about “how much I screw up and how much I tear up. They just pat me on the back and say, ‘Go stomp on that loud pedal.’”
2. Funny Car winner Matt Hagan delivers for Dodge- For Matt Hagan, his final-round romp over Alexis DeJoria was a fitting end: a Dodge car in the winners circle at a Dodge-sponsored event that after 35 years represented the longest-running event sponsorship in all of motorsports. (Ironically, DeJoria was his final-round victim when he earned his first Denver victory in 2021.)
The Funny Car points leader truly was the king of this mountain this one last time. Hagan cemented the No. 1 qualifier position with his victory Saturday evening in the $10,000-to-win Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge bonus race that gave him three more precious Countdown points. Then he claimed Tony Stewart Racing’s second straight victory at Bandimere Speedway. Top Fuel racer Leah Pruett, Stewart’s wife, won here last July.
Hagan had some sentimental incentives to win Sunday. He lost his mother about six months ago, and this is her birthday weekend. Hagan was hoping to win, too, for crew hand Josh Munoz, who suffered a broken sternum and some broken ribs in a highway accident in Indianapolis recently. And of course, he wanted to impress boss Tony Stewart, who flew in Sunday for the Camping World Drag Racing Series race following his own Eldora Million / Kings Royal classics this weekend at his dirt track at Rossburg, Ohio.
Hagan said one of the Dodge representatives teasingly told him if he didn’t win the Funny Car trophy he would be fired. Although it was a joke, Hagan wanted to make sure to get that 47th triumph that still leaves him fourth on the class’ all-time victories list.
DeJoria said, “That was a hard loss right there. Going up against Hagan, it was a rematch from two years ago. I really wanted that trophy for the guys and myself and our whole team. It is the last trophy here at Bandimere, so I guess it is quite fitting for the Dodge team to get it, but that’s not why we came here. We came here to win, and we were gunning all weekend. We had some wild rides, but that Toyota 200th win is still on the table, and we are also a part of the Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge for the next race. This was our third final of the year.”
3. Pro Stock winner Troy Coughlin Jr. calls victory ‘humbling’ and ‘an honor’ - Like his uncle Jeg Coughlin Jr., Troy Coughlin Jr. can add a Pro Stock “Wally” trophy from Denver to the extensive collection at the family-run Jegs Mail Order headquarters at Delaware, Ohio.
But he has one trophy none of his racing uncles, siblings, or cousins ever can contribute. Coughlin – like Millican, Hagan, and Gaige Herrera – received a trophy John Bandimere had crafted especially for these four winners Sunday and nicknamed the “Johnny.” (The traditional “Wally” statue is named in honor of NHRA founder Wally Parks.)
He called this fourth Pro Stock victory in his 70th race “humbling” and just being at the event and soaking in its historical value “an honor.”
After nailing his second victory of 2023 over finalist and points leader Dallas Glenn, Gainesville victor Coughlin said, “Man, that was a heck of a race. We’ve got a long way to go until November, but this Elite Motorsports team is not giving up, that’s for certain. Mark Ingersoll and all of the boys in the lounge, everyone who works on this JEGS.com / White Castle machine, had this thing flying.”
3(a). Pro Stock Bike winner receives the first ‘Johnny’ trophy to go with his ‘Wally’ - Bike sensation Gaige Herrera closed out a successful run for the Vance & Hines team at Denver with his fourth victory in the class’ six appearances on the schedule. Champion brothers Matt and Andrew Hines also have won at Bandimere Speedway, not far from where they operated their race shop for many years, at Trinidad, Colo., before relocating to Brownsburg, Ind.
To Herrera, his performance was a rebound, after Steve Johnson and Hector Arana Jr. were able to break into the win column as he struggled a bit.
But he has the honor of receiving the first specially designed trophy dubbed the “Johnny” for John Bandimere Jr., who commissioned it.
4. First round is tough on Top Fuel class - Four of the top five-ranked dragster drivers lost in the opening round.
No. 16 starter Rob Passey was thrilled about his part in making that happen. He defeated Brittany Force, who made a dramatic 337.33-mph run Saturday night in 3.724 seconds) to set the track speed record and grab the No. 1 qualifying spot. Her car dropped a cylinder or two early on, then she lost traction and shut the engine off at about 600 feet.
Afterward, Passey said, “I was checking the weather all week. And when it looked like Sunday was going to be the hottest, I got excited. I wouldn’t mind if it was 110 [degrees],” the part-time racer from Salt Lake City said. “We just motor our stuff down there, and if they bobble at all, we’re standin’ here, having fun.” He said he’s “just livin’ the day.” Shawn Langdon cut Passey’s day short in the quarterfinals.
For the first time in four meetings this season, Steve Torrence defeated Justin Ashley, the points leader and four-time 2023 winner.
Josh Hart started eliminations by using a better reaction time to knock out Leah Pruett, the event’s Honorary Starter and Dodge-branded driver who had been hoping for back-to-back triumphs at Bandimere Speedway. She and Hart registered identical elapsed times (3.905 seconds). His margin of victory was about six feet, or .0137 of a second.
Force’s Top Fuel teammate Austin Prock fell to Mike Salinas in his first race of the day.
5. John Force Won’t Let Bandimere Speedway Go Quietly Into Night - Funny Car icon John Force let his emotions spill over Friday night following his provisional No. 2 qualifying performance, calling it “Mount Rushmore.
“They built this in the side of a mountain. How do you do that?” Force said. “This is God’s gift. This is mythical s---. I love racing, and I love this hill – and I want ’em all to know it.”
Force has won eight times at Bandimere Speedway (1994-96, 2001, 2003, 2011, 2016, 2018) and compiled an elimination-round record here of 75-32. That mark is second only to his overall performance at Minnesota’s Brainerd International Raceway, where he has 76 round-wins. But he didn’t roll into Denver on top of his game initially.
He remembered that in early in his career, when he couldn’t afford a hotel, the late John Bandimere Sr. opened his home to him: “I was so poor I had to sleep at his house. I was a joke.”
Motioning to the grandstands, Force said, “I sat up there with my dad and Bandimere Senior in ’79. They’re gone now … but this place is important to us. I’m always excited to come race on the mountain. I’ve been coming to Bandimere Speedway a long time. I have a lot of history here. I’ve accomplished a lot, grown with the Bandimere family. It’s … an emotional weekend, saying goodbye to this place.”
Then Sunday, Force had more to say: “It ain’t over ‘til Bandimere says it’s over.” Realizing that drivers in all classes are expressing sadness that this is the Camping World Drag Racing Series’ last stop here, Force said, “They all care about this mountain. We’ve got to fix it.”
6. Drivers Bid Farewell To Thunder Mountain . . . - Alexis DeJoria looked a little bit ahead and a little bit backwards in this last trip to Denver. She said, “We will be grateful for all of the runs we got to run out here. Working with the Bandimeres just has been really awesome. I’m going to miss this racetrack. I’m going to miss going up and hiking Red Rocks every morning before the races. I’m going to miss all of these fans out here. Hopefully, they do end up building another track. Who knows if that is going to happen? But I’m really grateful for the time that we’ve had.”
Reigning Pro Stock champion Erica Enders said, “It’s hard to believe that this is the last time we will be heading to Bandimere Speedway. Visiting Denver has been a staple on our summer schedule since the mid-’90s when we were racing Jr. Dragsters. The tradition continued through my entire sportsman and professional career. The mountain is just flat-out special. The Bandimere family has not only done so much for the sport, but they have also been so great on a personal level, to my family and me. We wish them nothing but the best as they venture out on their next journey.”
But Enders always will remember Bandimere Speedway as the racetrack she never was able to solve. She had two cracks at it this weekend, one in Pro Stock and the other in Mountain Motor Pro Stock. But no matter the size of her engine, Enders once again was unable to walk away with a trophy from this track she loves so much.
Top Fuel’s Buddy Hull said, “It's a blessing to be able to do what we're doing, and I mean that with all my heart. I'm thankful that we're able to pivot and get out here to make some respectable runs and help the Bandimere family close out a long legacy of providing an incredible facility to drivers and race fans. They've worked their butts off their entire lives to provide us with a sandbox to play with our fast toys.”
Hull’s on-track rival Justin Ashley said Bandimere Speedway “is so much fun. It's amazing. The facility itself is stunning. When you combine that with the fans that come here … it’s packed, and it's been packed all weekend. They are so engaged and excited about the racing and what the Bandimeres have done. It's really a good culture inside this whole facility.”
Backing him up is the fact that despite the usual hot summer temperatures, the place was jammed all three days – even though singer Taylor Swift was in town for a concert and baseball’s popular New York Yankees were in Denver for an interleague series with the Colorado Rockies.
Jim Oberhofer, Clay Millican’s crew chief for the Parts Plus Dragster, got rousing approval of the crowd Saturday when he said, “Let’s raise some money and give it to the Bandimeres so they can keep racing here. This place is awesome.”
And John Force sort of seconded that Sunday, saying that he was encouraged by racers from all classes saying how much they love the venue. Force said, “We’ve got to fix it.”
7. … While Bandimere Family Promises New Facility - The Bandimere family has operated the dragstrip on Thunder Mountain – snuggled into the mountain in the Denver suburb of Morrison, Colo. – since 1958. They have committed to selling the property (and said if that falls through they have a back-up offer). In a Denver Post article published Wednesday, John Bandimere Jr. said the happy news is that the family is scouting new property and spearheading a plan to build a new, expansive dragstrip nearby that likely will involve a non-family member.
The ambitious aim, he said, is to welcome the NHRA back to the Denver market as early as 2025. Bandimere Jr. said Wednesday that the current racetrack won’t become the site of a housing development, but rather some sort of automotive-related endeavor.
Just before delivering the Saturday-afternoon invocation, Bandimere Jr. said, “The truth is this place doesn’t belong to us. It belongs to God. He’s made it so it’s been so fun.”
That didn’t bring John Force much solace. The PEAK Chevy Camaro owner-driver said, “I know the world’s changing and everybody needs room and they’re building houses. But this thing is something special. I’m mad about it. Not mad at the Bandimere family. I know they love it.”
Bandimere Jr. said at the end of the official presentations that he and his team are searching for a new location to build a replacement track after they sell this property. He said when that happens, “We’ll invite all of you.”
8. Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge: Looking back and ahead - After zipping to his fifth straight $10,000 Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge victory Saturday and running his Countdown bonus-point total to 15 from the qualifying-session specialty race, Top Fuel’s Justin Ashley won’t participate at Seattle. Competing at Seattle in the bonus event will be Doug Kalitta, Shawn Langdon, Clay Millican, and Steve Torrence.
In the Funny Car class, Alexis DeJoria, Ron Capps, Denver #2Fast2Tasty winner Matt Hagan, and J.R. Todd will go for the points and cash at next weekend’s Flav-R-Pac Northwest Nationals at Pacific Raceways.
In the Pro Stock category Saturday, Troy Coughlin Jr. launched with a perfect light in his winning run to defeat Aaron Stanfield (who, ironically, cut a perfect light against Matt Hartford for the right to face Coughlin in the final). A pair of KB Titan Racing drivers, Camrie Caruso and Dallas Glenn, and a duo from Elite Motorsports, Coughlin and Erica Enders, will compose the Seattle foursome.
No. 1 qualifier Hector Arana Jr. red-lit away his chance to rule the day, allowing Matt Smith to win the Challenge Saturday. But he earned a return berth Sunday, reaching the semifinals. Also qualifying for the Seattle Mission Challenge field were Gaige Herrera, Angie Smith, and Chase Van Sant.
9. Antron Brown Makes Friday Top Fuel Pass Fit For A King - Antron Brown’s Friday-night pass that made him the Top Fuel class’ tentative No. 1 qualifier was fit for a king. The King of Speed – Kenny Bernstein – warmed up Brown’s Matco Tool Toyota Dragster in the pits earlier in the day.
“That was some pressure right there, having ‘the King’ come back out and sit in our car,” Brown said after covering the Morrison, Colo., 1,000-foot course in 3.783 seconds at a class-best 327.90-mph speed. “I’m glad we did a representative run for Kenny. He did that all the time.”
And according to Brown, Bernstein hasn’t missed beat since his retirement: “When he warmed that car up – people don’t realize – he went through all the motions without even thinking about it: put it in reverse, forward, smooth, not grinding the gears, trimming the fuel pump like he was there just yesterday.”
Brown called his visit with Bernstein “truly special” and said his run Friday evening was ‘something we can give back to Kenny for all he’s done for our sport. He’s definitely our hero at AB Motorsports.”
10. Don’t mess with Texas – or Texas resident Alexis DeJoria - During the first round of Funny Car eliminations, Ron Capps defeated Terry Haddock. But Haddock put up a noble challenge, especially considering his crew and volunteer helpers from other teams worked until about 2:30 Sunday morning to prepare the car. Haddock’s final qualifying run ended with a massive engine explosion that blew out the side of his car body.
McKailen Haddock, the driver’s son, was praising his team for all of its hard work. And apparently he and interviewer Hannah Rickards were standing in the way of Alexis DeJoria as she was ready to perform her burnout. Someone from DeJoria’s crew shoved Haddock off to the side of the track.
Following her successful run, DeJoria said, “I was getting a little heated on the starting line. Car started up, and my crew chief went out to pull me out to do my burnout. Haddock’s team was still out there, giving an interview. And, man, I got kind of pissed. I get road rage when I’m in that car.”
McKailen Haddock, one of the politest and most respectful young men in the drag-racing community, later took blame for the problem.
“I had asked Hannah for the interview to shout out the guys and just wasn’t quick enough answering before the next pair,” he said. “All good!”
#11 - NHRA NORTHWEST NATIONALS
Competition Plus’ Water-Cooler Topics From The NHRA Northwest Nationals outside of Seattle, Wa.
1 – Steve Torrence gobbles up 54th victory against equally hungry Doug Kalitta - Antron Brown said it, but the comment easily could have come from Steve Torrence or Doug Kalitta: ““We’re coming in hungry, and it’s not for king salmon.” But no one in the class was hungrier than Sunday’s two Top Fuel finalists Torrence and Kalitta.
Torrence got his taste of victory, for the 54th time overall, second at Seattle, and the first time since the 2022 St. Louis race (14 events ago). In cashing in on his third final-round appearance of the year, the Capco Contractors dragster driver moved to within two victories of tying Antron Brown for No. 3 on the all-time Top Fuel list. Torrence won here 10 years after his other triumph at Seattle.
And in doing so, he denied Kalitta his first victory in 56 races and his 50th overall. The Mac Tools dragster driver ran his elimination-round victory record to 750 as he advanced to his second straight final-round appearance.
“You win a lot of these and you get a little bit complacent and maybe not as grateful as you should be,” Torrence said. He gave Toyota its 200th drag-racing victory, but more sentimental to him was earning the first victory since losing his maternal grandmother in March.
The four-time Top Fuel champion, who had been on a dominating tear for four of the past five years, said, “We went way off the rails last season” and had experienced “a mental struggle” in going from a steamroller to getting steamrolled. He has spoken at the past couple of races about working to get his “Steve Torrence Swagger” back after seeing the competition “cut my head off at the Tree, outrun me on the track, and make me look like I’d never showed up and done this before.”
3 – Gaige Herrera Pro Stock Motorcycle winner – again - Stop us if you’ve heard this one before. (Have you heard that one before?)
Pro Stock Motorcycle ace Gaige Herrera won for the fifth time in his class’ seventh appearance on the schedule as he became the first-ever bike winner at Pacific Raceways.
He defeated Vance & Hines Mission Suzuki teammate Eddie Krawiec, keeping him from celebrating his 50th victory.
Herrera said of Krawiec, “He’s my boss, but the Wally comes home to Vance & Hines. I expected something on the starting line, but he played a fair game.”
4 – J.R. Todd calls Alex Laughlin a ‘clown’ who ‘ought to keep his mouth shut’ - Social-media feuders and NHRA Funny Car racers J.R. Todd and Alex Laughlin met in the opening round of eliminations, and Todd had trouble getting his car to start. Laughlin, driving for drag-racing pioneer “Big Jim” Dunn, waited for Todd’s crew to get the car fired up. Then Laughlin’s car experienced mechanical trouble, so his crew shut off the car and consequently gave Todd a solo pass into the quarterfinals.
In his top-end interview with Jason Galvin immediately following the run, Todd said, “Really unfortunate to not be able to race against Big Jim Dunn and those guys. He’s a living legend in the sport. I have a lot of respect for him. But maybe that clown driving the car, he ought to keep his mouth shut from now on.”
The bad blood goes back to April, when Laughlin mocked Todd’s Kalitta Motorsports teammate Shawn Langdon for a starting-line mistake. That triggered a trash-talking quarrel. Then Laughlin was disrespectful of Todd’s sponsor in a post prior to Sunday’s eliminations.
Todd let his raw reaction spill out in his interview – something that Pacific Raceways President Jason Fiorito had encouraged.
Fiorito found himself under fire this weekend for his own comments in an Autoweek article. He simply had urged racers to resist the canned, boring, bland top-end remarks and show some passion for a sport that he said is “personal” and adrenaline-filled. But many readers misinterpreted his intention, which was to share their excitement at racing 11,000-horsepower machines the length of two football fields at more than 320 mph for less than four seconds.
Some drag-racing fans scolded him for “advocating violence,” shamed him and said he’s inciting mayhem to sell tickets. But at least one fan from Canada called him and said after reading the article that he had bought tickets and was driving down to Seattle to see what might happen.
A verbal salvo or two is all that the article might have stirred, but Todd’s criticism of his rival had been simmering for much of the season.
5 – Bike wunderkind Gaige Herrera only racer eligible to sweep Western Swing - Three racers entered this event with a chance to sweep the Western Swing that winds from Denver to Seattle to Sonoma, Calif., in successive weekends. As the action shifted to northern California’s Wine Country, just one of them – Pro Stock Motorcycle racer Gaige Herrera – remained eligible to do so.
Denver winner and points leader Matt Hagan couldn’t get past Tim Wilkerson in the first round of Funny Car eliminations, killing his chance to add his name to the Western Swing “sweepers.”
Clay Millican, the Top Fuel victor at Denver, lasted one more round Sunday than Hagan. In his semifinal race against Doug Kalitta – a rematch of last weekend’s Denver final – Millican red-lit away his chance.
6 - Clay Millican urges eighth-mile racing - With John Bandimere Jr. confirming that his family’s Denver-area racetrack is in the process of being sold and the Phoenix facility announcing earlier in the year that it was hosting its final race, the Camping World Drag Racing Series is entertaining replacements. And Clay Millican, the final Top Fuel winner at Bandimere Speedway, had a suggestion: race at a couple of eighth-mile tracks.
The NHRA ditched quarter-mile competition for nitro cars in 2008, limiting the course to 1,000 feet for safety reasons. The idea has arisen before, and one of the arguments against it is that tuners would have a tough time switching up their traditional routines. But Millican’s opinion is that if these crew chiefs could take on the challenges of the thin air at Denver (conditions that produce data useless anywhere else), they certainly could adjust to an eighth-mile track.
“With the way land prices are going,” he said, “you can't be mad at some of these track owners for selling. You just can't. The numbers that are flying around, rumor-wise, that these tracks are selling for, you can't be mad at the people that are selling them. And for me, being a bracket racer at heart. I grew up eighth-mile racing. There's some eighth-mile facilities in this country that I don't know why we couldn't go to some of them. And there's three great racetracks in Canada.
“There are a couple out there that could hold a heck of an NHRA national event,” he said. “I think it’s something they should look at. I really do.”
Millican said he expects to face criticism from those who disagree. “I get grief all the time on my YouTube channel: ‘I'm not watching anymore because it's a thousand feet.’ But with some of these tracks going away, why wouldn't we look at some of these wonderful eighth-mile facilities that are available out there?”
7 – Pair of #2FAST2TASTY winners from Seattle get another shot at Sonoma - Steve Torrence (Top Fuel), Ron Capps (Funny Car), and Gaige Herrera (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were winners Saturday in the Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge.
Torrence and Herrera will race in the specialty event that takes place during Saturday qualifying for a chance to earn more cash and Countdown bonus points.
The Top Fuel’s Fab Four for the Sonoma version of the race include Doug Kalitta, Shawn Langdon, and Clay Millican. In Funny Car, the quartet consists of Blake Alexander, Chad Green, J.R. Todd, and Tim Wilkerson. Herrera’s rivals in the bonus event will be Hector Arana Jr., Eddie Krawiec, and Matt Smith.
9 – That’s what they said -
"We put our socks on the same way. We don't wear the same underwear every day. But we do weird stuff." - Bobby Lagana, car chief of the winning Capco Contractors Dragster
“It’s been a long time since I got a trophy for anything.” – J.R. Todd, Funny Car runner-up, who’ll try to break his 53-race drought this coming weekend at Sonoma
“I might pull a tail off a jackrabbit.” – Funny Car driver Tim Wilkerson, speaking – apparently – of his luck in reaching the final round Sunday
“Good Lord, we done won us another one, boys.” – Steve Torrence to his “Capco Boys” crew as he got the final-round win light against Doug Kalitta
10 – Yes, they said that, too - “
Today’s one month since she’s been gone. Can’t be any better. She’s watching.” – Joe Maynard, after watching business partner Tim Wilkerson earn the Funny Car victory.
“I couldn’t be more proud of what we have going on. It was there for the taking in the final, and it was one of those deals where we let one get away. For Mac Tools, Revchem, Toyota, definitely appreciate everyone’s support. We’ll give it another shot next week, and maybe Sonoma will be our time.” – Doug Kalitta after watching Steve Torrence turn his own fortunes around while preventing him from claiming his long-sought 50th victory.
#12 - NHRA SONOMA NATIONALS
Competition Plus’ Water-Cooler Topics From The NHRA Sonoma Nationals
1 – Gaige Herrera Sweeps Western Swing, Sonoma Spoils
Gaige Herrera might have to rent a moving van to take home to DeMotte, Ind., all the loot from his Sonoma Raceway domination.
By Sunday evening, the Vance & Hines racer had been presented a broom for sweeping the Western Swing. Herrera wrote his name in the sport’s history book, winning by default over Matt Smith, whose bike failed to start for the final round.
The only racer left who was eligible to sweep the three-event Western Swing through Denver, Seattle, and Sonoma, Herrera became the first from the Pro Stock Motorcycle category and eighth overall to do so. He follows Top Fuel drivers Joe Amato, Cory McClenathan, Larry Dixon, Tony Schumacher, and Antron Brown, as well as John Force (Funny Car) and Greg Anderson (Pro Stock).
“You never want to win that way,” Herrera said after Smith, for the second straight race, was beaten by a $100 cam sensor that failed. “But I’ve got one bad machine. To be able to do this … I’m out of words.”
But he wasn’t empty-handed. At the top end of the racetrack, he received the broom, a winner’s hat, a medal to wear around his neck, the winner’s payout, and the traditional wine goblet filled with a Pinot selection that goes to the victors at Sonoma Raceway.
That wasn’t all of his bounty.
The day before, Herrera claimed the $15,000 jackpot in the All-Star Call-Out specialty race during qualifying as he grabbed his seventh No. 1 starting position in the class’ eight appearances on the Camping World Drag Racing Series tour. So he earned an additional trophy, a championship belt, and a hat that identified him as the No. 1 qualifier.
Within about 24 hours, Herrera was cementing his place in Pro Stock Motorcycle lore. Denver winners Clay Millican (Top Fuel) and Matt Hagan (Funny Car) both failed to win at Seattle, leaving Herrera the lone candidate to score what likely is the last Western Swing.
The Denver dragstrip, Bandimere Speedway, pushed the list of NHRA venues to drop from the schedule since 2018 to six. Gone, too, are facilities at Englishtown in New Jersey, Atlanta, Houston, and Phoenix. Still-thriving Virginia Motorsports Park, south of Richmond, opted out of the tour.
Meanwhile, for the second straight race, Matt Smith fell victim to a cam sensor. His bike refused to start, just as it had done in the semifinals at Seattle. He had no choice but to stand and watch Herrera extend his lead in the standings to 359 points ahead of No. 2 Hector Arana Jr. and 361 ahead of No. 3 Mission Suzuki teammate Eddie Krawiec.
2 – Justin Ashley Gains Top Fuel Trophy, Points Lead On Dad’s Birthday - Justin Ashley said his Phillips Connect Toyota Dragster “was on rails” after combining with Funny Car winner J.R. Todd for a Toyota double-nitro triumph Sunday.
Ashley edged Antron Brown by one-thousandth of a second (.0017) in the final round to record his fifth victory of the season in 12 events.
In the process, he regained the points lead from Steve Torrence, who held off upset-minded part-timer Ron August in a close first-round match and overcame an explosion at about just 60 feet into the 1,000-foot course that blew the supercharger off his car but lost to Antron Brown.
It was a swing this weekend of 36 points for Ashley, who entered the event four points off Torrence’s pace and emerged 32 points ahead of the Capco Contractors dragster driver.
By advancing to his 17th career final, Ashley earned his 100th elimination-round win and ran his race-day record to 25-7. It all happened on retired racer dad Mike Ashley’s birthday. Another of his victories this summer came on mom Mindy’s birthday weekend.
3 – J.R. Todd’s Elusive 20th Funny Car Victory Denies Chad Green His First - Funny Car’s 2018 series champion J.R. Todd said, “It’s been a long time since I got a trophy for anything.” Suddenly this weekend, he earned two.
Todd claimed the Wally statue for defeating hopeful first-time winner Chad Green in Sunday’s final round. It came after his Saturday victory in the Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge triumph over Blake Alexander.
For the DHL Toyota Supra driver, Sonoma Raceways is a special venue. Todd recorded a 2006 Top Fuel victory here. That day he shared the winners circle with close buddy Eric Medlen, who passed away the following March from testing-crash injuries. Sonoma Raceway was Medlen’s home track, and every year the NHRA community hosts a party in honor of Medlen to raise money fro Speedway Children’s Charities,
Todd also scored his first victory in a Funny Car here in 2017. And this breakthrough victory, his 10th overall, ended a 53-race winless streak that lasted 868 days. His previous success came at the March 2021 Gatornationals at Gainesville, Fla.
“I forgot what this is like,” Todd said of the winners circle celebration. “I’ve never had a throttle pushed down so hard as I did today. I thought it was going to go through the floorboard every run.”
He said that when he saw his win light come on, “I was cussin’ and screamin’ and everything. It was instant relief.”
It was Green’s first final-round appearance in his 40th race.
4 – Impact of Mission Foods Challenge Suddenly Becomes Apparent - After Steve Torrence drove his Capco Contractors dragster past Clay Millican to his second straight $10,000 victory in the Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge Saturday, he said, “We’re trying to close the gap Justin Ashley’s put on us, and we’re doing it one tortilla chip at a time.”
Announcers laughed at Torrence, suggesting he had forgotten he passed Ashley for the Top Fuel points lead from Ashley at Seattle. What they missed was that Torrence was alluding to the significance of the Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge, and the impact it could possibly have on Countdown seeding.
Torrence was talking about the Countdown bonus points Ashley has banked: 15 from his five Mission Challenge victories (to go along with the $50,000 in cash prizes). Torrence has six (and $20,000 extra). So for example, if the Countdown were to have started Sunday, Torrence would’ve had a four-point lead on Ashley in the standings – but Ashley would have used those 15 Countdown bonus points to claim the No. 1 seed for the six-race playoffs.
When the Misson Foods Challenge was announced, some groaned that all fans were doing was seeing a rerun of the previous race’s semifinals. Some fans – and definitely the racers – appreciated Mission Foods’ sizable investment in the sport. After all, what nitro driver wouldn’t want to compete for an extra $10,000? (Well, two or three along the way who aren’t chasing a championship chose not to, but most relished the opportunity.) But in the beginning, earning three bonus points, or two or a single bonus point, seemed useful but not all that motivating.
Soon, though, as reigning Funny Car champion Ron Capps first brought up, the payout took a back seat to the points. Points mattered maybe more than cash (which also certainly has been welcome). Capps remembered that he earned his third title last November by merely three points. And he won’t forget that he was on the wrong side of some close battles. Jack Beckman disappointed him with a two-point difference in 2012. And Gary Scelzi already, in 2005, had denied Capps by eight points (just as Robert Hight had beaten out Beckman by eight points in 2019).
Now that only three more chances remain for the nitro class before the Countdown fields are set (and fewer for the Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle class), Torrence’s comment was nothing to laugh at. It showed has awareness for the chance of a weirder-things-have-happened scenario as the cutoff race, the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis in September, approaches.
Torrence’s Top Fuel class alone has several examples of narrow title margins. Tony Schumacher edged Larry Dixon in 2009 by two points. Torrence had a three-point advantage over Doug Kalitta at the end of the 2019 season, and Antron Brown claimed his first title in 2012 by only seven points ahead of Schumacher.
And Greg Anderson took the brunt of it twice in Pro Stock, losing to Jason Line by three points in 2016 and to Bo Butner in 2017.
Torrence, already an outspoken critic of the NHRA’s points-manipulation practice, could benefit from it. But if he carries only a slight – less than 15 – point lead over Ashley, Ashley could play the Misson Foods Challenge card and begin the Countdown in first place, a seeding which gets an additional points award.
So Torrence raised the issue with his post-victory remark Saturday.
5 - Antron Brown Receives Divine Intervention - Top Fuel’s Antron Brown demonstrated his driving skill Saturday during the fourth and final qualifying session, when he guided his Matco Tools Toyota dragster cleanly down the track and through the turnout without incident after his broken rear-wing strut malfunctioned.
The downforce-controlling rear wing came loose early in his pass on the 1,000-foot Sonoma Raceway course and collapsed sideways as he completed the 308.99-mph run amazingly straight and in control. In the nearly eye-blink span of 3.896 seconds, Brown felt the dragster make “a hard move” that he thought probably was the result of a dropped cylinder, learned from crew chief Brian Corradi via the radio what the truth was, kept opposite-lane racer Brittany Force out of harm’s way, and controlled the car in almost-routine fashion in spite of its sideways-sitting, collapsed wing.
“God was definitely looking out. I was really blessed and fortunate there,” Brown said. “The cool thing is that the car stayed on the ground. It didn’t get airborne. I should’ve shut it down early; not worth it. That was a lucky one there.”
His crew had the car fixed before the No. 3 qualifier met Mike Salinas in the first round of eliminations Sunday. Brown knocked off Salinas, outrunning Salinas’ best-of-the-meet 335.65-mph speed. Then in the quarterfinals Brown dashed Brittany Force’s hopes of a repeat victory at Sonoma. He reached the final round by beating points leader Steve Torrence (who came to the semifinal after a huge explosion blew the supercharger off his dragster at the 60-foot mark). Brown lost by a narrow margin in the final against Justin Ashley.
6 - Ron Capps Ready to Represent Drag Racing - When the Camping World SRX (Superstar Racing Experience) Series made its debut, showcasing headliners from various motorsports series, noticeably absent was a drag racer. But quizzed about who they’d like the see, the inaugural-race drivers mentioned Ron Capps.
Finally, in the SRX’s third season, Capps has become the first straight-liner to receive an invitation …. unless we count SRX co-owner and co-founder Tony Stewart, who already has a trophy in the NHRA’s Top Alcohol Dragster class.
Capps, the 74-time NHRA winner, will race in SRX’s Aug. 10 Thursday Night Thunder event at Eldora Speedway, the night before the Menards NHRA Nationals opens at Topeka.
He has raced on the iconic half-mile clay oval at Rossburg, Ohio, before, in a similar invitational “Prelude To The Dream” all-star-style show. But this circle-track-experienced drag racer said, “I’m nervous. As the days get closer, I’m more and more nervous. We’re going to race at Eldora, where I raced dirt cars before with Tony Stewart – although a lot different. I’m going to approach it like I did at Eldora, driving the Prelude, and that was to try to bring somebody else’s equipment back the best I possibly can. I’m surely going to try to win. You’ve got to remember we’re up against the best race-car drivers in the world in all different categories.”
The three completed SRX races have seen NASCAR Cup Series racers take the checkered flag. Just racing NASCAR veterans has Capps concerned. He’ll be competing Aug. 10 against Hailie Deegan, Brad Keselowski, Bobby Labonte, and Ryan Newman. To add to his trepidation, he also will be up against Indianapolis 500 winners Tony Kanaan and Ryan Hunter-Reay, as well as IndyCar’s Marco Andretti. Oh, and he’ll have Stewart – who has excelled in IndyCar, NASCAR, sprints, midgets, and now drag racing – on track, too.
But Capps has tested in an IROC car and an SCRA sprint car, as he has raced in the prestigious Chili Bowl Midget Nationals at Tulsa. Still, he said he was a bit intimidated when he tested earlier this year at a small racetrack in North Carolina.
“I went and tested with SRX right after the announcement, and I went to a little track in North Carolina. I showed up. And there were [NASCAR Cup Series stars] Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Kasey Kahne, and Clint Bowyer. And here I am, first-time ever, being strapped into one of those cars, let alone going out in front of all these guys who are classic. I mean, you could say they’re six of the best stock-car drivers in the world,” Capps said.
“So it was very intimidating. And I was very much not comfortable in the car. It’s just so different from what we normally do,” he said. “We don’t get a lot of practice. That’s the only time I’ve been in the car. I haven’t even had a chance to go to Eldora or anything in the last five or six years.”
Nerves aside, Capps said, “It’s an incredible opportunity for any race-car driver. People forget there’s a lot of really good race-car drivers – I’m not talking about myself here ... I’m talking about Doug Kalitta [the 1994 USAC Midget rookie of the year and the 1994 USAC Sprint car champion] … J.R. Todd can turn left. There’s a lot of good drivers out here that do pretty well and can do well. So it was definitely a shock to be invited, very cool.”
Capps said the SRX Series, sponsored by the same company that sponsors the NHRA pro series, “is pretty much what the IROC Series was and is. It’s generated so much attention this year, going to Thursday Night Thunder, like we all used to watch when we were younger.” So he’s as excited and prepared, really, as he is apprehensive.
However, he did say, “I’ve got a lot of things stacked against me.” He said racers from other circle-track series don’t welcome drag racers all that enthusiastically.
“Every time I’ve gone to race other series and other kinds of cars, normally, the other race-car drivers don’t take too kindly to a drag racer passing ’em,” Capps said. ”And I usually get punished. They don’t like a drag racer going around ’em. And they usually get a little upset about it and try to spin you out or something. So we’re going to see how we can hold up without getting taken out and see if we can make NHRA Nation proud on that Thursday night.”
The race will be broadcast live on ESPN from 9-11 p.m. (ET) Aug. 10.
7 – Gaige Herrera Wins Inaugural Bike-Class All-Star Call-Out - Gaige Herrera was about the only Pro Stock Motorcycle racer who didn’t jump in and contribute any insults, snarky comments, trash-talking, or even good-natured ribbing during the class’ mid-week NHRA-arranged conference call to preview Saturday’s All-Star Call-Out.
But what he had to say he said in less than 21 seconds total in three rounds on the racetrack Saturday.
The Vance & Hines racer defeated Angie Smith in the final round of the bonus race to claim the $15,000 winner’s payout, the title belt, a flashy trophy, and all the bragging rights – seemingly another day at the office for him these days.
“I almost say this one tops the whole season. I really wanted this one. I was actually really nervous for the final,” Herrera said. “I liked how we were able to call out who we wanted to race. It brought me back to where I came from [grudge-style racing]. It causes rivalries between people and some tension. That made it interesting and it was a lot of fun.”
He said, "What it made it so special is that we are at Sonoma. I have raced here a lot in years past — probably 20 times — and I only lived about five to six hours from here. We always loved racing here, so we would come here a lot.”
As soon as he got off his Mission Foods Suzuki and removed his helmet, Herrera said, “I was out of breath after that. It’s awesome. I’m so happy.” He praised his Andrew Hines-led team’s hard work “they put in to make sure the bike runs to its full potential.”
He advanced to the final by defeating Chase Van Sant and Hector Arana Jr.
Angie Smith had predicted that the outcome would be a decision between the Vance & Hines team and her Matt Smith Racing (MSR)/Denso team. She was right. In fact, all Angie Smith faced were MSR or Vance & Hines opponents Saturday. She reached the final by eliminating her husband, Matt, then Herrera teammate Eddie Krawiec.
8 – Safety Safari Transforms Oil-Marred Track For Thrilling Eliminations - Mechanical trouble for one Top Dragster driver Friday night triggered a massive oildown that was to blame for a less-than-ideal qualifying show both later Friday and Saturday. But the Safety Safari team, who worked super-hard Friday night and again Saturday, were able to prepare the racing surface with two equally fast lanes for Sunday’s runoffs.
The oildown in the first 300 feet in the right lane caused the remainder of the Top Dragster class, as well as the Super Gas and Top Sportsman categories, to be postponed until Saturday. Top Fuel, Funny Car, and Pro Stock Motorcycle competitors carried on Friday night – with clearly a missed opportunity at this facility beloved for its atmospheric conditions that are favorable for records and exciting runs.
John Force Racing crew chief Dave Grubnic declared Friday night, “The lanes are so significantly different.” And the problem carried over through Saturday’s action.
In the third overall qualifying session, every single Funny Car and Top Fuel driver who ran in the right lane lost traction. (In fairness, only Matt Hagan in Funny Car and Josh Hart and Steve Torrence in Top Fuel – all in the left lane – made passes under full power in the round.)
Privately, some nitro teams applauded the Safety Safari’s efforts but complained that the proper solution would have been to scrape the track and apply fresh rubber. But Funny Car’s Cruz Pedregon said, “We all were just pushing too hard. The NHRA did a good job of prepping the track. The air’s so good these cars want to go fast, but the track has other ideas.”
Sunday’s track conditions were much improved, as Shawn Langdon indicated after his Top Fuel first-round victory: “NHRA did a good job of turning the track around and giving us equal lanes. It’s coming down to holeshots.” Grubnic, too, said, “Credit to the NHRA.”
9 – Eric Medlen Remembered - The Medlen family, originally from nearby Oakdale, Calif., along with the John Force Racing family and the entire drag-racing and northern California rodeo communities, lost Funny Car driver Eric Medlen in March 2007. But 16 years later, his memory lives on and his influence remains strong. The 15th annual Eric Medlen Nitro Night auction raised $60,000 Thursday, bringing its total contributions to Speedway Children’s Charities to $400,000. Maynard Ashley Racing principal Dustin Davis, along with Phillips Connect and the Maynard Ashley Racing marketing group, spearheaded the casual barbecue dinner and party that came after the traditional afternoon karting contest at Sonoma Raceway. Austin Prock, thanks to his pre-drag-racing career experience, dominated that race.
10 – Celebrity Chef Guy Fieri Cooks Up Intriguing Plan - Celebrity chef Guy Fieri, best known for his “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives” program, first popped up at the dragstrip when Shawn Langdon was driving for Alan Johnson Racing’s organization. And he and former AJR General Manager Brandon Bernstein – one of Medlen’s dearest friends in an informal group they and Ashley Force, Morgan Lucas, and J.R. Todd called “The Gen2Crew” – spoke Sunday about putting together a new Top Fuel team. Whether they were serious about their desire to “get the band back together,” no one knows but them.
#13 - NHRA HEARTLAND NATIONALS
Ten water-cooler topics from the NHRA Menard's Nationals in Topeka.
1 - Tasca Goes Back-to-back - Bob Tasca III’s family is Ford royalty. So when he convinced them to return to NHRA because he’d deliver wins, he scored a big one on a rain-delayed Sunday in Topeka, kan.
For Tasca and his team, there was nothing easy about this one.
“It was a hard-fought day, I tell you,” Tasca said. “I give all the credit to the guys, I tell you. I don’t know. Every time we warmed up the car, there was something wrong, like from a fuel leak to couldn’t get the [engine containment device] on one run. It’s like, ‘Oh my God, we’re going to miss the race because we can’t get the diaper on.'
“They just fought through it. The car shut off in the first round, car shut off in the second round, car shut off in the third round. And we were struggling with putting cylinders out and having the safety box shut the car off. And I just said to these guys, ‘I mean, look at the incrementals.” You could see the car was trying to run ridiculous ETs. We need all eight (cylinders) this run to beat Hagan, and we had all eight. And that run was a monster run.”
Tasca emerged victorious by defeating points leader Matt Hagan in the final round, boasting a run of 3.885 seconds at 332.26 mph in his BG-sponsored Ford Mustang.
“We’re going into Brainerd, going into Indy,” Tasca said. “My goal was to be in the top five. I think everyone wants to be No. 1 leaving Indy. But the truth be told, if you’re in the top five leaving Indy, you got a really good chance to win the championship. I think we’re fourth or fifth leaving here. We get two big races to go before the point reset, and this car can go in any race and win, and I don’t know if I’ve ever been able to say that before.”
2 - Ashley wins another one - With Jim Epler fielding questions about his milestone first 300-mph run in a Funny Car, he always ended every interview by stating because he never won at Heartland Park; that he believed he was carrying around unfinished business for a long time. Sunday, Epler got his closure thanks to Justin Ashley.
Epler, who was the driving force behind Ashley’s Phillips-Connect sponsorship and is a partner in Maynard - Ashley Racing, finally got his Topeka win thanks to a barn-burning performance from the driver he endorsed years ago.
Ashley won his sixth national event of the season and extended his points lead over Steve Torrence by beating Brittany Force in the final round.
Ashley, who is one of the most focused drivers in the category, said Sunday’s recurring weather delays challenged him.
“I think just staying focused, especially with the layoff, was tougher than ever,” Ashley admitted. “It’s hard enough to stay focused throughout the day on a normal race day, but we really didn’t know what today was going to bring. Every driver, every team was under the same circumstances. We understood that, but with conditions changing, not knowing when and if we were going to get a race in — let alone four rounds today, which really speaks volumes to the Safety Safari, to be honest with you — was probably the biggest challenge of all. You’ve got a lot of confidence as a driver when you have the kind of Phillips Connect team that we do.”
3 - Enders Wins A Driver’s Race - There are racers where a driver can out-horsepower the competition, and then there are others where the driver plays a larger role in the equation. Sunday’s performance proved Enders, who only had one win to her credit to this point in the season, still could outdrive the competition.
Enders pulled to within two victories of surpassing Angelle Sampey as drag racing’s winningest professional racer by beating Greg Anderson in a final round where the conditions were not the greatest for the factory hot rods.
“I’m proud of my guys,” Enders said. “They work so hard in the engine shop. They work so hard on the race car. There’s so many things, so many parts and pieces that go into this, aside from horsepower, chassis setup, shocks, all of the things. But being able to turn the beacon on because I did my job every once in a while is pretty nice.”
Enders, while promptly pointing out that all of her wins were tough, said without a doubt beating Dallas Glenn in the second round was challenging.
“They gave him the nickname after one year of racing, ‘Double-Oh Dallas.’ And we were ‘Double-Oh EE’ way before he even arrived, so we had to show him up a little bit, and I was glad to be .009 against him and turn that win light on. That was super important. But my crew chief said, ‘This is the race that will determine the race. So, you win here, we’re winning this whole thing.’”
4 - Mother Nature Makes her presence known - Let the record reflect that Mother Nature was an attendee at the final Menards NHRA Nationals on the final weekend of NHRA competition at Heartland Motorsports Park. While she often gets credited for the wet stuff, she also brings along the heat.
The temperature went as high as 96 degrees Friday and cooled slightly to 93 on Saturday. The relative humidity was around 55 percent. Reportedly the Heartland Motorsports Park medical center treated at least 50 patients for heat-related issues.
NHRA officials moved Sunday’s start time up to 10 a.m. Central when Mother Nature was expected to bring thunderstorms in the night. She did. And she kept on storming into the afternoon. Sunday’s start time was delayed by 5-1/2 hours.
NHRA got in two rounds of nitro competition before the anticipated rain hit almost on time. After a 30-minute delay, racing resumed with the quarter-finals of Pro Stock.
Rain hit again after the nitro semifinals pushing completion into the early evening hours..
5- Hunter Green gets his Wally - Hunter Green, the son of nitro Funny Car racer Chad Green who drives an injected nitro car for Randy Meyer, scored his first career win, beating Shane Conway in the final round. Green scored the final Top Alcohol trophy at team owner Randy Meyer’s home track.
“All I know is me and my dad have worked hard to get here,” Green said. “He’s doing good [in nitro Funny Car]. I’m doing good with Randy Meyer now. It’s been a lot of hard work. It’s a long time coming. We started in Pro Modified and graduated to Funny Car.
“I just started driving a few years ago. We’ve been out here for a while, and things are going well for us. It’s been a long road to get here. It’s been a long, hard weekend.”
The elder Green was understandably proud.
“It feels so awesome,” Chad said shortly after the win. “Nothing better than watching your kid win like that. It’s better than myself winning; that’s awesome.”
While Chad hasn’t won in a nitro car, he does have an NHRA Pro Modified victory to his credit, beating Jason Scruggs in the final round of the postponed 2020 Lucas Oil Summernationals at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis.
6 - Let the speculation begin - One could call it the Antron Brown Traveling Warm-up Tour. In Denver, Brown opened the cockpit of his Matco Tools dragster to Kenny Bernstein. On Saturday, twice he provided Angelle Sampey, his former Pro Stock Motorcycle teammate, the opportunity to warm the car.
While expressing an interest in nitro racing, Sampey is adamant that nothing is in place for her to move forward.
Brown said he’s working on it.
“The coolest part of it is that she’s got some interest in doing some other things,” Brown said. “I just wanted her to see what this fuel racing is all about because I’ve told her for many, many years, I think she’ll be great in a fuel car because she rode those motorcycles like no other, winning three championships. And one thing is she’s always been a headliner in our sport for riding Pro Stock Bike. Get that picture: Imagine Angelle racing a Top Fuel car. Period.”
Sampey confirmed she’s warmed up a nitro car now eight times. It sounds like preparation to us.
7 - Torrence Ends #2Fast2Ashley Streak - Let the record reflect; the streak lasted 11 rounds. Steve Torrence stopped Justin Ashley in the final round of the #2Fast2Tasty Top Fuel Shootout on Saturday. Ashley had won all five of the events he participated in.
“Justin Ashley has shown himself to be a fierce competitor, and he’s got a good team over there,” Torrence said.
The win was Torrence’s third consecutive in the specialty event.
Also winning titles were Matt Hagan (Funny Car) and Dallas Glenn (Pro Stock).
7a - Palmer gets his upset - On paper, Tony Schumacher looked like the overwhelming favorite to beat Scott Palmer in their first-round match. Palmer didn’t get the memo, and though Schumacher left first by a slight margin, his later tire smoke enabled Palmer to drive by for the win.
Only two Top Fuel drivers won from the bottom half of the ladder, Palmer and Austin Prock (Doug Kalitta).
“It was a good run; I got out there and pulled it back to keep it safe,” said Palmer, who benefited from tuning help by John Stewart and the CAPCO Top Fuel team. “It’s hot out here, and that’s something crew chiefs don’t like to hear.”
8 - Factory Experimental Fizzles - After a significant build-up, the Factory Experimental concept was expected to debut at the Menards NHRA Nationals. Numerous construction delays with building the cars, primarily due to parts availability, left the entry list with only one car.
9 - The Battle of the Retired Consultants - When Paul Lee and Cruz Pedregon met in the first round, it represented a battle between the two teams employing past championship tuners who gladly enjoy their time as consultants.
Lee, who hired John Medlen as a consultant for his McLeod Clutches team, won first round in two consecutive races after going the first five of his part-time season without a round win.
Lee has openly admitted he hired Medlen after seeing the success Lee Beard brought to Pedregon’s team.
The two left side-by-side, but Lee pulled away when Pedregon lost traction.
10 - Say What????!!!???
“Admittedly, we’ve not been the CAPCO boys of the past, and so we’re doing the best we can to get back to that. I think that at some point, we might’ve given some of these guys a false sense of hope that we weren’t the team that we used to be. - Steve Torrence, following his #2Fast2Tasty Top Fuel win on Saturday
“I don’t know if someone hexed me. But I’m going to get some sage, and sage my whole pit.” - Alexis DeJoria following her car’s shutoff in Saturday qualifying.
“I can’t lie, everybody red-lighted the whole entire day. And here I am.” - Super Stock winner Mike Cotten to NHRA announcer Joe Castello on the secret to his victory.
#14 - NHRA LUCAS OIL NATIONALS
Competition Plus’ Water-Cooler Topics From The Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals in Brainerd, Minn.
1 – Top Fuel winner Antron Brown hitting his stride late in year - again - Antron Brown reached his 133rd final past reaction-time ace Shawn Langdon, Steve Torrence (the driver he’s chasing in the standing), Mike Salinas (who had just recorded a monster run of 3.654 seconds at 338.26 mph), and finally Leah Pruett, whose results all day had altered the standings.
“I was shakin’, butt-cheek-quivering ... changed my drawers three times,” Brown quipped. “You got 12 cars that are no joke. Every race is a final round.” Then to the crowd, he asked, “Were you not entertained today?!”
Brown improved to third place, brushing aside Brittany Force and shaking up the standings a bit with just one race, the points-and-a-half U.S. Nationals, left before the Countdown kicks off in mid-September. The three-time champion captured his first $10,000 victory and three Countdown-point prize in Saturday qualifying’s Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge.
Of final-round opponent Pruett, Brown said, ““You know when you’re racing those TSR [Tony Stewart Racing] cars and Leah. She is hungry right now. That girl is full-blown beast mode. I was like ‘Oh, Lord, here we go. Here we go.’ We knew what they were capable of, and we just went out there and just wanted to make another lap. We thought we were going to pick it up a little bit more, but the track got so good it ate us up just a little bit, and I think that’s what happened to Leah where it ate them up a little bit, too. We were both pushing to go quicker. By the end of the day, when you look at those numbers, we were very consistent today. And that’s what it took to get the job done.
“We started off with a great lap, and I think that just set our tone for the day,” Brown said. “We were the quickest and fastest of the first session. Then we just go into race mode where you’ve got to race smart. You can’t throw Hail Marys and if they don’t stick then you just lose a run because you overpowered the racetrack. So, [crew chief Brian] Corradi and [co-crew chief Mark] Oswald stayed in that zone, and that consistency pays off. And that’s what wins, and that’s what wins championships.”
After winning against Tony Schumacher, Pruett did points leader Justin Ashley a favor by bumping off third-ranked Force in Round 2. Then she didn’t help Ashley – she eliminated him in the semifinal.
2 – Funny Car winner Ron Capps hits milestone - Not only did three-time and reigning Funny Car champion Ron Capps record his milestone 75th career victory by defeating Robert Hight in the final Sunday, but he also earned his second of the season and his seventh at Brainerd International Raceway.
That 75th triumph ties him on NHRA’s all-time winning list with Top Alcohol Funny Car legend and Top Fuel driver Pat Austin.
“First of all, 75 wins is crazy,” Capps said. “Pat Austin has been one of my heroes, and I got to be around him early in my career as a crew guy. And I always strived to be Pat Austin. To watch him, ice in his veins, just some huge match-ups for me to stand behind their car back then. I used to look at the list and was like, ‘Pat Austin, 75 wins — that seems so out of this universe,’ so when I came around the corner after the final and saw a ’75 wins’ sign, it blew my mind.”
“Our NAPA guys work so well as a team and work so hard, and I just don’t want to make a mistake,” Capps said.
Of crew chief Dean “Guido” Antonelli, he said, “Guido, I can see it in his eyes when he’s racing Jimmy Prock [Hight’s crew chief]. Robert Hight and I talk about it all the time; it’s very cool because you know they’re going to push each other and sometimes one of them makes a mistake and pushes too hard. But as the conditions got better and better today, we were convinced they were probably going to go .85. That’s what Jimmy does, and Guido didn’t want to make a mistake and push too far, so the way I staged, the car probably went .86. I could hear Robert all the way down, like a video game, and I was like ‘C’mon baby, just make it,’ and it was a huge relief.”
3 – Dallas Glenn defeats teammate Kyle Koretsky to win in Pro Stock - Pro Stock points leader Dallas Glenn joined Antron Brown (Top Fuel) and Ron Capps (Funny Car) in the winners circle. Glenn beat KB Titan Racing teammate Kyle Koretsky in the final round for his fourth triumph of the season and eighth in all.
Glenn said the last time he took part in a race at Brainerd International Raceway, he was a crew member for three-time champion and Brainerd favorite son Jason Line.
“And we parked it in the winners circle then, too,” he said.
Glenn didn’t have a lot of time to savor his accomplishment. He had to load up the team hauler and drive it the 20 hours or so back to the KB Titan shop in North Carolina.
5 – Salinas leaves huge impression on Brainerd International Raceway - In his quarterfinal Top Fuel victory over Clay Millican, Mike Salinas powered his Valley Services dragster to the third-fastest pass in class history at 328.26 mph. It is the fastest in the class this entire season.
Salinas lost to eventual winner Antron Brown, who said Salinas “dropped a bomb in that last round” after advancing past Salinas into the final. Salinas’ top speed is third on the performance list behind two of Brittany Force’s late-2022 marks (338.94 at Pomona Finals last November and 338.43 last October at St. Louis). Eight Funny Car passes among four different drivers have been faster.
Salinas also set low elapsed time of the meet at 3.654 seconds on the 1,000-foot Brainerd International Raceway course.
6 - Bobby Bode emotional after tagging wall in first round - Bobby Bode saw his Funny Car get beaten up in the first round of eliminations Sunday, then he beat himself up.
On his quickest pass of the season (3.929 seconds) at his career-best speed (322.50 mph), Bode fought to salvage his car after it made a hard move to the right. But it scraped the wall and tore a sizeable gash in the body.
After a few moments leaning against his car, visibly upset, Bode tearfully said, “We work so hard, then I go out there and do stupid stuff like that. It was going good. I flickered it. I thought I had a good light. [He launched with a .079-second reaction time.] And then it started hunting towards the right. I cranked the wheel as hard as I could, and it just never came back. I hope it didn’t get the chassis, because we’re done. We don’t have a back-up chassis. Thanks for all the fans. Great memories here, but this was not one of ’em.”
When his father, Bob Bode, earned his first and only Funny Car trophy, here in 2010, Bobby Bode was sitting in the stands, enjoying a blue sno-cone. And the young Arizona State University junior who inherited Dad’s Funny Car still laughs at the winners circle pictures from that day, when he smiled for the cameras with blue lips. And he said he’d love to follow in his father’s footsteps, win at Brainerd, and treat everyone to a blue sno-cone. But his opening-round results put that idea on ice.
7 – Trio of new winners marks penultimate Mission Foods program at BIR - A trio of multi-time series champions – Erica Enders (Pro Stock), Antron Brown (Top Fuel), and Robert Hight (Funny Car) – were first-time winners in the Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge during Saturday qualifying.
Enders started this weekend with three bonus points in her “Countdown bank account” through the previous seven Pro Stock cracks at the Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge rewards. But she doubled her balance Saturday, finally winning the specialty race for her class. Enders defeated Deric Kramer in the final round.
“I unintentionally double-bulbed Deric Kramer, so that part sucks and overshadowed the excitement of winning for me,” she said of her starting line miscue. “That’s not how I race. I make a living being an honest racer.” Still, she said she was especially happy for her sponsors “because coming into the year we thought we do were going to do some good – and we haven’t. So it’s very meaningful.”
Also winning the Mission Foods Challenge for the first time were Top Fuel’s Antron Brown and Funny Car’s Robert Hight.
Brown, who denied Brittany Force her first bonus-race victory, said afterward, “On that last run, we dropped a hole at half-track. [Crew chief Brian] Corradi had it reeled in there. But hey – we got some Mission tortillas. I’m tellin’ you – we’re going to make some fried chicken tortillas with a little watermelon on the side. If you want some, come get some, baby!”
Hight chased down Matt Hagan in their final-round match to keep the points leader from scoring consecutive bonus-race victories in the Funny Car version. Hight’s crew chief, Jimmy Prock, said that, like Brown’s dragster, Hight’s Camaro had a cylinder out downtrack.
“I really feel like we got away with one,” Hight said. “You don’t go up there and try to run 3.98 and beat Matt Hagan. You’re going to get beat most of the time. We got away with one there. We’ll take it.”
10 – Top Fuel class collectively decides to call off Friday’s second qualifying session - The NHRA’s Top Fuel class made the decision during Friday night qualifying not to run the second session in the interest of safety and in the wake of what the teams determined was inaction by sanctioning-body officials.
Crew chiefs and team owners sacrificed the best qualifying conditions of the weekend at Brainerd International Raceway and collectively decided not to run on the 1,000-foot course after a 50-minute oildown clean-up robbed them not only of daylight but also a safe racing surface. BIR doesn’t have lighting along its dragstrip.
What triggered the situation was Blake Alexander’s oildown in the left lane at the start of the second session of Funny Car qualifying. A connecting rod on his Jim Head Racing/Pronto Ford uncharacteristically broke during his burnout and the containment pan dumped oil on the track when he launched. The resulting 50-minute clean-up robbed both nitro classes of precious daylight and the best racing surface. Seven more Funny Car pairs made runs, and most lost traction.
Josh Hart, owner-driver of the R+L Carriers Dragster, said, “It was a terrible situation for the Safety Safari. The clean-up effort unfortunately was not suitable for either Funny Car or Top Fuel. The action should have been stopped as soon as NHRA realized Funny Cars couldn't make it down [the track].
“Instead,” he said, “NHRA tried to rush the class and wasted money, effort, and almost cost a couple people their cars, because the sun was going down and the track was a Slip ’n’ Slide. Whatever the motivation was for this decision did not have our safety in mind at all.”
Hart said, “Most all crew chiefs and owners tried to call NHRA, and the phone was not answered. So we collaborated on the decision not to even start any Top Fuel car.”
Kyle Wurtzel, who was in the opposite lane from Hart on Friday night, poised to make his run, said, “I’m not sure whose idea it was. One of my crew guys told me, ‘We are pushing you back, and we are not running.’ So I hopped out of the car.”
Brittany Force had posted a No. 3 elapsed time in the Top Fuel’s first qualifying session and had hoped to improve on that in the second session, lamented the turn of events but took a pragmatic attitude about it.
“Unfortunately, because of uneven lanes and lack of light with the sun going down, we lost our second qualifying pass, which is really disappointing,” she said. “After that first solid run, we were really going to step it up and push this car in the best conditions we would have all weekend. That’s the way the game is played. Everyone else had to follow the same rules, so we’ll pick up where we left off.”
All classes received two more qualifying chances Saturday to set the field for Sunday eliminations.
The only racer not all that unhappy with the Friday night “Minnesota Mutiny” was Doug Kalitta, who had taken the provisional No. 1 position in the opening session. He kept the No. 1 spot until Justin Ashley swiped it in the final session Saturday.
10 (b) – It’s my party, and I’ll cry if I want to - Doug Kalitta arrived at Brainerd International Raceway ready to celebrate his 59th birthday with a breakout performance that would give him that elusive victory and first since the October 2020 St. Louis race.
He started out the weekend as the No. 1 qualifier in the first session, and he kept it when a collection of Top Fuel crew chiefs and team owners decided not to run the entire second session. He hung onto it through Saturday’s early session. But Justin Ashley spoiled that, passing him in the final session by .011 of a second.
Then Clay Millican finished ruining Kalitta’s party, defeating him in the opening round of eliminations.
Another birthday boy, Robert Hight, fared much better this weekend. He won the Funny Car edition of the Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge for the first time during Saturday qualifying. He started eliminations by beating Bobby Bode and Dave Richards, who just had upset then-points leader Matt Hagan. Hight, who turned 54 years old Sunday, reached his 99th final round, knocking off boss John Force. But Ron Capps spoiled Hight’s birthday bash in the battle of the three-time champions.
You would cry, too, if it happened to you.
#15 - NHRA U.S. NATIONALS
BONUS EDITION: Competition Plus doubles down on its water-cooler topics from the Dodge Power Brokers U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park
1 Antron Brown (Top Fuel) and Ron Capps (Funny Car) share U.S. Nationals winners circle for second straight time - NHRA Top Fuel driver Antron Brown ran over to Funny Car champ Ron Capps after both won the U.S. Nationals and climbed from their cars Monday afternoon, and Brown wrapped Capps in a bear hug and picked him up in a déjà vu moment.
That’s exactly what happened last Labor Day at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park. In 2022, they shared the podium as first-year team owners. Monday, they celebrated as repeat winners focused on diving into the six-race playoff that begins in two weeks, carrying their momentum to respective fourth championships.
And about 24 hours earlier, Brown wasn’t sure he even would be able to compete in his Matco Tools Toyota dragster. With only one qualifying chance remaining, the three-time series champion was in danger of missing the field of 16. He blasted his way into the line-up, in the 15th position, and buzzed past some of the class’ stiffest competition – Brittany Force, Clay Millican, Justin Ashley, and Steve Torrence – to repeat his Indianapolis triumph.
Undoubtedly the most sentimental victory of this 69th edition of the U.S. Nationals belonged to Capps – and legend Don “The Snake” Prudhomme. With the blessing of sponsor NAPA Auto Parts, Capps wrapped his Funny Car in tribute to Prudhomme’s iconic yellow Hot Wheels livery to mark the 50th anniversary of “The Snake’s” first U.S. Nationals Funny victory, as well as the 10th anniversary of the “Snake & Mongoose” film that features a cameo by Capps.
And a clearly touched Prudhomme was on hand for the entire weekend, engaged in Capps’ efforts just like he was in the days Capps drove for his team.
Capps said, “To have Don Prudhomme here, I could not let him waste a plane ticket. He didn’t want to lose after he flew all the way out here. This is an unbelievable thing. To win here, to win Indy with my brother Antron again, is massive.”
Brown struggled with mechanical problems – electrical, ignition, clutch – the entire weekend. But he and his Matco Tools Toyota team persevered to come from the No. 15 starting spot to score a second consecutive U.S. Nationals victory and fifth in all.
“It’s one of those weekends where we never quit, and that’s what you have to do to win the U.S. Nationals,” Brown said. “We went through all the trials and tribulations and that’s what makes this win so special. We were coming off that win in Brainerd [Minn.], and we got thrown a curveball. But we got this one done, and we’re going to remember this win for a long time.
“This is one that was a getting-dirty win. We went through all the pain, all the stuff all the way through qualifying and we found a way as a team. We never stopped believing. You’ve got to have faith. I love this team so much. They never quit, never stopped working and all the credit goes to this team. They worked so, so hard and to win this two years in a row. It’s amazing,” he said.
2 Pro Stock’s Matt Hartford earns place in Indianapolis history - Matt Hartford sat in the seat of his Total Seal Chevy Camaro, eyes closed, reveling in the accomplishment of winning his first U.S. Nationals.
“We came so close a few years back, and I lost by the narrowest of margins,” Hartford said after emerging. “Indy is a childhood dream. This is surreal. I’m ecstatic.”
Looking ahead to the Countdown, which starts at Reading, Pa., in less than two weeks, Hartford said, “There’s six races coming up. Our focus is to qualify at the top of the sheet at all of them and turn on four win lights every time. If we do that, this turns into a wipe. We have the team. We have the car. And let me tell you, KB Titan power is as good as it gets right now, and we’re going to have an incredible, fresh piece going into the Countdown. If I keep [my head] screwed on straight, watch out.”
Then, in a light moment, Hartford said, “Half my crew is flying home in about 35 minutes. I explained to them in no uncertain terms, ‘Your flights are canceled.’”
3 Gaige Herrera continues to cash in, but Matt Smith wins bike final - Denso/MSR/Stockseth Suzuki racer Matt Smith capitalized on two Pro Stock Motorcycle opponents’ miscues in the semifinals and final to claim his third U.S. Nationals victory and second in a row.
A broken porcelain on a spark plug was to blame for year-long dominator Gaige Herrera’s rare loss on the Vance & Hines Suzuki in the semifinal round. Smith advanced to the final round, where Hector Arana Jr. left the starting line three-thousandths of a second too early.
“For us to win back-to-back U.S. Nationals, it’s pretty amazing. To win with the next-gen Suzuki Hayabusa, it’s pretty spectacular,” Smith said.
However, he lamented that his bike wasn’t producing the performance he was intending for it to show in the first 60 feet on just about every run: “We’ve got to go fix a couple of motors. The biggest thing is we’ve got to find a tire and a clutch combination for 60 foot. And if we can do that, I really think that we can run close to Gaige and give him a battle for this championship.
“It all starts over in the next two weeks at Reading, and I think we’ll be alright there,” he said.
Herrera, meanwhile, breezed to his fourth Mission Foods#2Fast2Tasty Challenge victory in six events for the Pro Stock Motorcycle class. That gave him a class-best 13 additional playoff points in the Countdown to the Championship, another outstanding achievement in his already-stellar 2023 campaign.
4 Kris Thorne captures Pro Mod trophy - Current series champion Kris Thorne won the trophy in the FuelTech NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series, defeating Justin Bond in the final round. - This eighth of 10 events was the second race in the category’s Road to the Championship.
Driving the Bahrain 1 Racing Chevy Camaro, Thorne assumed the points lead for the first time this season as he earned his career-first U.S. Nationals victory.
“There is no other race in the world I’d rather turn it around [than Indianapolis],” Thorne said. “I’m super-excited we were finally able to conquer this one. I’ve been upside down here, I’ve been on fire here, I’ve torn everything up I’ve owned here. This was emotional and great. If I went out today, this is the last race I would ever want to win – the U.S. Nationals, the biggest one.”
He reached the final past Jerico Balduf, No. 1 qualifier Rickie Smith, and Stan Shelton. With two races left on the schedule, Thorne has a 12-point lead over Bond. Jason Lee is 49 points off the pace.
The FuelTech NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series presented by Type A Motorsports returns to action at the Midwest Nationals at World Wide Technology Raceway, near St. Louis.
5 Funny Car’s J.R. Todd makes it to final round – the scary way - After J.R. Todd defeated Blake Alexander, Bob Tasca III, and Cruz Pedregon to advance to the final round, he had a frightening moment that he handled with aplomb. Although he didn’t know what the reason was at the time for his close call at the top end of the 1,000-foot course, Todd’s DHL Toyota Supra experienced a failure of the brake pressure sensor on the master cylinder. What he did know was that he had no brakes.
Top Fuel cars sat at the end of the race track in front of him, and he swerved to the right to avoid them and ended up in a patch of grass. The car came back to the pit on a flatbed and was unloaded for a repair thrash that included all three teams from the Kalitta Motorsports camp. Todd lost in the final round to Ron Capps.
“It was definitely dramatic, for sure, after the semis,” he said. “Once you get to the semifinals, you start thinking it’s going to be your day, especially after what we had to go through there. We had a really good car the first two rounds, and I just hate we dropped a hole there in the final.
"In the semis, I pulled the ’chute, went to grab the brake, and there was nothing there. It was either hit the Top Fuel cars in front of me or [make a] hard right turn into the grass. And that’s what I did. I wasn’t sure what happened, but I knew I had no brakes. It turned out it ripped the pressure sensor off the master cylinder, so we had absolutely no brakes. That’s a helpless feeling. I’m glad it was something minor like that, so we were able to get it fixed up there for the final. Losing in the final round at Indy sucks. That stings. These opportunities don’t come around that often. We’ve been here before, but when you’re that close, you just want it.
“All in all, it was a good day. We made up some ground in points like we wanted to going into the Countdown,” Todd said. “That’s the ultimate goal. I always say you want to be top five going into the Countdown, and you can make that up in a race. I feel like we have a car capable of contending with these guys. We just have to do our job in qualifying and work on getting a little quicker, and I think we’ll be in good shape. We just have to keep digging.”
6 Robert Hight calls out Ron Capps to start the Pep Boys Funny Car All-Star Call-Out and goes on to win the $80,000 top payout of the year - The Robert Hight approach: Treat it like a bar fight. The Cornwell Tools-sponsored Funny Car driver made a bold choice as the first to select a Round1 opponent for Saturday’s Pep Boys All-Star Call-Out. Hight used the philosophy of seeking out the biggest guy in the bar for a fistfight and punching him out, and it worked. He erased one of his toughest opponents right away and went on to beat Cruz Pedregon then Matt Hagan for the $80,000 season’s-richest victory. In last year’s inaugural event, Hight followed the same train of thought, calling out Bob Tasca III when Tasca was in the midst of a strong run.
Capps crew chief Dean Antonelli called Hight’s move pure genius. Hight replied, “I don’t know that it’s genius, I’ll be honest. You’re sitting in your car for first round and you’re thinking, ‘Boy, I hope I made the right decision. I hope I don’t go up here and choke and do something stupid and really look stupid.’ Just because you call somebody out doesn’t mean you’re going to beat them. You’ve got to now go out and get the job done and then do your job, and it can go a million ways. These are race cars that anything can happen and the driver can screw up, the car can break, can be overpower, anything can happen.”
Robert Hight looked anything but stupid. And he said, “There’s no doubt about it: It’s going to be Hagan and Capps right to the bitter end. We’re going to be fighting these guys, so this is practice. If you happen to get it done, you’re one up on them.”
7 John Force breaks through for a first victory of this season - John Force broke a winless streak of 30 races without any bonus- or specialty-race accomplishment, winning the Funny Car’s final Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge of the season. The long-awaited victory happened to come on the day his son-in-law, Graham Rahal, broke his own 14-year performance struggle by earning the pole position for the IndyCar series finale at Portland, Ore.
I do what I do, and I was really lucky in this Mission Foods deal. It was almost a red light against Robert. He knows it; I screwed up. Then with Capps, I took all the bulbs to New York. But then I got to race Capps and the Don ‘The Snake” Prudhomme car, and that means a lot. He used to whoop me up every week,” Force said.
“In the final, the last thing I said to my crew chief Danny Hood was, ‘Look where we’re at. Let’s get out of the bottom half [of the line-up].’ He and Tim Fabrisi both said, ‘Go for the win.’ So, I jumped on it. [Sponsor] PEAK, they’re happy that I can put this Chevy Camaro in the winners circle. I’ve got a lot of work cut out. I’m in the Countdown now. I want to see where it goes. I’m no spring chicken, so I got a lot of work to do. It’s a good feeling. I’ve won Indy five times, but it was a good feeling to be here.”
8 Ashley on a mission with specialty races - Top Fuel points leader Justin Ashley capped his class’ run of Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenges by capturing his sixth trophy. That punctuated his season-long supremacy with a total of $69,000 in prize money and 21 Countdown to the Championship points. The Phillips Connect Toyota Dragster driver pocketed $15,000 Saturday, a $5,000 bump-up from the usual $10,000 winners share of the purse.
In the opening qualifying session today, Ashley won when Leah Pruett disqualified herself with a foul start. Against Brown in the final round, Ashley cut a nearly perfect reaction time (.017 of a second) to propel him to the wire-to-wire victory.
9 Cory Reed returns to Pro Stock Motorcycle competition - For the first time since his on-track accident in September 2021 at Charlotte. Reed suffered a compound fracture of the left leg, above the ankle, and faced months of surgeries and rehabilitation. Aboard Michael Phillips’ Suzuki this weekend, Reed qualified No. 16 but said, “I have zero expectations.”
10 Yellow Hot Wheels livery celebrates memorable 50th anniversary - Ron Capps wrapped his Funny Car in tribute to Don Prudhomme’s iconic yellow Hot Wheels livery that marks the 50th anniversary of one of “The Snake’s” five U.S. Nationals victories, as well as the 10th anniversary of the “Snake & Mongoose” film that features a cameo by Capps.
“This is a dream come true, both as a kid growing up and now as an NHRA driver,” Capps said. “It’s exciting to bring together the old-school Hot Wheels fans like myself with the next generation and offer up a tribute car. It’s also a tribute to what Hot Wheels did for the sport with ‘The Snake’ and ‘The Mongoose.’ It’s incredibly emotional to be on the starting line at Indianapolis Raceway Park with ‘The Snake’ standing behind the car.
“I’m grateful to our partners, especially NAPA, for graciously supporting this idea and allowing us to run a throwback car like this at such a big, historic race,” he said.
The Hot Wheels/NAPA GR Supra is a modern version of the Hot Wheels Funny Car Prudhomme drove to victory at the 1973 NHRA U.S. Nationals. Prudhomme was already an established name in the sport with five Top Fuel victories, but his first of three Funny Car triumphs at Indianapolis helped take his career to new levels. He became the first driver in drag-racing history to win a national event in two pro categories, and he won four straight Funny Car championships (1975-78) and 49 victories in a combination of Top Fuel and Funny Car races. As a team owner, Prudhomme added more than 50 victories in both nitro classes.
“I got a little tear in my eye when Ron approached me about doing this paint scheme,” Prudhomme said. “It blew me away that he was doing that, and to have NAPA on board with the whole project is quite an honor for me. It's really a throwback paint scheme. That paint scheme, along with ‘The Snake and The Mongoose’ Hot Wheels set which was originally released in 1970, really made my career. I couldn’t think of a better guy to be teamed up with to run this paint scheme.”
The 1:64-scale Hot Wheels die-cast version of Prudhomme’s bright yellow car, as well as partner Tom ‘The Mongoose’ McEwen’s red version, brought drag racing to the living rooms of kids around the world. The toy sets introduced Prudhomme and McEwen to a mainstream audience, propelling both drivers and drag racing in general to unprecedented heights.
“The Hot Wheels team is so excited to have NHRA Funny Car champion, Ron Capps, pay tribute to the legendary Don ‘The Snake’ Prudhomme and his iconic Hot Wheels Funny Car at this year’s NHRA U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis,” said Bryan Benedict, Mattel’s director of vehicles product design. “Ron has been a great friend of the Hot Wheels brand and continues to push boundaries, inspiring the next generation of automotive legends through his perseverance, passion and countless hours of ‘challenge accepted’. And the fact that this is honoring the ultimate legend, Don ‘The Snake’ Prudhomme, makes this a perfect match."
The story of Prudhomme and McEwen’s early racing careers, including their pursuit of Hot Wheels as a major sponsor, was chronicled in the 2013 film “Snake and Mongoose.” The film was released during the 2013 U.S. Nationals weekend with special screenings at a theater near IRP. It included cameos by racing personalities like Capps and fellow Toyota driver Alexis DeJoria.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years since the ‘Snake and Mongoose’ movie came out,” Capps said. “As someone who grew up idolizing ‘The Snake’ and ‘The Mongoose,’ it was really exciting to see their life stories played out on the big screen. To get to be a part of the production and have a cameo in the film was surreal. This throwback car is also a great way to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the movie.”
15 Rooftec Comp Cash Clash Jackpot Goes To Don Thomas - One drag racer’s vision leads to a $50,000 specialty event - The Rooftec Comp Cash Clash, a natural byproduct of Rodger Brogdon’s D4 Competition Eliminator Bonus Fund offered the top 16 in the specialty series to race for a $50,000 purse. Thanks to a special Calcutta auction, another $37,000 was added to the pot.
Ultimately, econo dragster racer Don Thomas won the $30,000 plus an additional $17,500 from the auction.
How much has Brogdon’s efforts helped rejuvenate Competition Eliminator?
In 2021, Competition Eliminator had 41 entries; this year had 63. Additionally, five of six NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series events in D4 have had full 32-car fields with alternates. A year earlier, the largest field had 24 events.
16 Stevie Fast Returns To Pro Mod Action - Stevie Fast is back. After nearly a year away from doing what he loves, and that’s driving a race car, popular Pro Mod driver “Stevie Fast” Jackson made his return behind the wheel after having offseason neck surgery at the biggest and most prestigious drag race on the planet, the U.S. Nationals. And while it may seem fitting that Jackson made his return at the granddaddy of them all, the two-time U.S. Nationals champion says he didn’t plan it that way, but is happy it’s the way it worked out.
“Indy is always special for us,” Jackson said. “So it wasn’t circled in the beginning, but when we talked about fielding a second car, and Sidnei asked me if I’d drive it for a race or two, I told him if we do that, I want to debut it in Indy. So, yeah, it’s a special deal.
“I’ve run well here, and we’ve had some very emotional moments here. Not a lot of people can win one of these, and to win two of them is even harder. And when I speak at engagements, when I go to talk to kids at a fair, or when I go to talk to kids at a school, they announce me as a two-time U.S. Nationals champion even more than a two-time Pro Mod world champion. So it’s a special deal to win one of these.”
Jackson had a pretty solid outing in his first race back, qualifying eleventh with a 5.835 at 248. Unfortunately, Jackson was a little too amped up in the opening round, turning on the red light against Mike Castellana, who cut a psychic (.015) reaction time of his own.
However, Jackson, who had a long and rigorous road to recovery to get back behind the wheel of the racecar, says he feels good and is ready to get back after it.
“For two or three runs, I felt like I was behind the car,” Jackson admitted. “The car moved around a little bit downtrack and I told the guys, ‘It’s a new car that we’ve never raced.’ So not only is it me getting in it, but it’s me getting in something and trying to sort it out, in really just one test session. So we went and tested for one day and then came to the U.S. Nationals. That’s not a good recipe for success, but getting this thing was really, really last minute, really late. We worked all night. I worked 48 hours straight to get to Bowling Green to go test it. When we got to Bowling Green, I told the guys I hadn’t been to bed since Friday and it was Monday. So it was a really tough push.
“After about three runs, I felt really comfortable in the car. The one thing that I said to the guys after the first test day [was], ‘We made five runs and I didn’t even really think about it until the next day, but I got up and my neck didn’t hurt.’ And I will say this is the first time in 10 years I have driven a Pro Mod five runs and not been in pain the next day. And pain is a weird thing. You don’t realize you have it until it’s not there anymore. And we made four rounds of qualifying here, I am back to 100%, I have zero pain, zero issue, comfortable in the car, mobility is good, and I’m ready to rock.”
17 He’s in. He’s out. What is Rickie Smith going to do? - In what may have been his final run at the prestigious NHRA U.S. Nationals, Pro Mod legend “Tricky Rickie” Smith made the first step in trying to go out in style at the “Big Go” as the driver of the lone nitrous-oxide boosted hot rod in the field went to the top spot in qualifying with a blistering 5.754 at over 253 miles per hour.
The two-time U.S. Nationals champion in Pro Mod has contemplated retirement before, even deciding to skip the final race of the NHRA Pro Mod season last year despite having an outside shot of winning the title, feeling like his nitrous-powered Ford was at a disadvantage. However, after a rule change in the class, Smith has raced on a part-time basis in the NHRA this season, and it seems like the King, N.C., native has put everything in place to make a grand exit.
“It’s a fun weekend so far for me,” Smith said. “Coming up here, being the No. 1 qualifier, and I’m trying to retire. And at least at the end of the year when I quit, they can’t say, ‘Well, he quit because he couldn’t be competitive.’ I can be competitive. And you always need just a little luck or something on Sunday. So it just depends on how the luck goes [Sunday] and Monday, and we’ll see where it goes. But I’m quitting on a really good note, I feel like.
“I come here ’cause I think I’ve got everything now. I’ve been trying to retire for four years, but I’ve got everything: deposits on it. I think I’ve got stuff sold the way I want to go. So good luck to these guys. I’ve had one hell of a career, 42 years almost for a living, and 50 years racing and 11 championships. Nobody else besides John Force has run this well this long and still be competitive and still can win races. So I’m tickled to death to go out the way I’m going out.”
He went out in Monday’s Round 2, as Kris Thorne beat him on a holeshot.
19 Hartford makes personal history - Matt Hartford has fought the Pro Stock fight and is now winning.
Back in 2006, he was running an independent team just hoping to make the 16-car field at NHRA national events.
That's not the case anymore.
Hartford has transformed into a championship contender, and he's having a career-best season in 2023.
He arrived in Indy second in points and before this season he never captured a No. 1 qualifying spot and he has four No. 1s in 2023, including the U.S. Nationals.
Hartford, who runs KB Titan engines in his Camaro, has proven more than ever that he can't be overlooked in the six-race Countdown to the Championship.
20 Championship points to reset for six-race Countdown - The distinction doesn’t come with any points, cash, or even a certificate of achievement.
Just the same, Justin Ashley (Top Fuel), Ron Capps (Funny Car), Dallas Glenn (Pro Stock), and Gaige Herrera (Pro Stock Motorcycle) have the satisfaction of being winners of the so-called “regular season” and as such will lead their respective fields into the six-race playoffs that start in less than two weeks at Maple Grove Raceway at Reading, Pa., and continue at Charlotte, St. Louis, Dallas, and Las Vegas and end in November at Pomona, Calif.