THE TEN: NHRA GATORNATIONALS EDITION
Competition Plus’ water-cooler topics from the Amalie Oil 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