2020 NHRA U.S. NATIONALS - TOP FUEL NOTEBOOK
SUNDAY - LANGDON ENDS TOP FUEL DROUGHT TO CLAIM SECOND U.S. NATIONALS TROPHY, BEATS PRUETT IN FINAL
Top qualifier Shawn Langdon got past first-time starter Joey Haas and veteran Cory McClenathan, survived an entertainingly ugly pedalfest with Justin Ashley, and defeated nemesis Leah Pruett in the final Sunday to claim his second U.S. Nationals Top Fuel triumph and first since the St. Louis event in the fall of 2016.
With a strong .015-second reaction time (ideal is 0.00), Langdon covered the 1,000-foot Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis course in 3.705 seconds at 326.32 mph – plenty to hold off Pruett’s 5.141, 145.75.
She didn’t earn her ninth Top Fuel victory or complete the opportunity to join Funny Car winner Jack Beckman in giving Don Schumacher Racing a double-up victory (in either a dragster or in her Factory Stock Showdown Dodge Challenger Drag Pak). However, she eliminated Steve Torrence in the semifinal to overtake him for second place in the standings.
Second-round finisher Doug Kalitta retained his Top Fuel points lead as the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series leaves its Indianapolis cocoon after four post-coronavirus-break races and heads to the postponed Gatornationals at Gainesville, Fla., Sept. 27.
That’s encouraging news for the Kalitta Motorsports team. It has won at Gainesville Raceway in the past two visits, with Richie Crampton bringing the honors.
Langdon, who spent the past two seasons competing in a Funny Car for Kalitta Motorsports, said, joined other two-time Indianapolis champions Jack Beckman (Funny Car) and Erica Enders (Pro Stock), as well as first-time winner Scotty Pollacheck (Pro Stock Motorcycle).
The DHL - Toyota Dragster driver is known for his skill at the Christmas Tree. But he had to rely on his experience in the semifinals against Ashley to overcome the rookie’s nearly perfect reaction time (.001 of a second). Both lost traction immediately and often and were on and off the throttle, but Langdon prevailed with his dubiously noble elapsed time of 6.920 seconds.
“Semis was a little goofy – had to change my underwear and come back for the final,” Langdon joked after registering his 17th overall victory.
In that wild semifinal race, Langdon said, “I noticed when we went to pre-stage that they were wiping something up. I thought it might just be an overflow of the fuel tank. I saw something and they kept mopping it up, but I didn’t see any of my guys panicking. Apparently they were behind me, but I couldn’t see anything. I wasn’t really prepared for it, because the car’s been good all weekend. So it caught me off guard. I hit the gas, and it struggled. I couldn’t get it to hook back up, and I got sideways.
“A couple of times I thought I was about to wreck,” he said, “but those are the races why we do this. In hindsight, they said it was leaking some blower lube, and they almost made the decision to shut us off on the starting line. Obviously, you don’t want to run in your own oil, but this is Indy and I’m here to win races, so whatever it takes. They made the decision to let me run, and we’re in the winners circle.”
He also shared some insight about the run itself: “When I hit the gas initially, I saw his car shoot out on me and I was letting my car calm down a little bit, because it was still smoking the tires. I was reaching over to grab the brake handle to help slow wheel speed down, and then I saw him getting in trouble. At that point was when I started to get back on the gas. It was going for a second and I think it dropped a cylinder and it went back up in smoke. At that time, I was waiting for it to calm down again and I could hear him having trouble as he was still trying to get it to recover. At that point, I’m doing anything I can. I’m trying to be easy on the gas, because when you smoke the tires, you have to try to treat the gas pedal like it has an egg underneath it, so I was trying to do it, but it was just having none of it. I was just trying to do what I could to get it to the finish line. Luckily, I was able to manage it someway, somehow. It was an exciting one, for sure.”
The final round went much more smoothly.
“When I hit the gas, I said, ‘We’ve got it if it doesn’t smoke the tires.’ I saw I had a little reaction-time advantage [.015 of a second to Pruett’s .091], so that was good. Just trying to give everything I’ve got, man,” Langdon said.
Pruett countered with a 5.141-second, 145.75-mph run in the Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Redeye Dragster.
Langdon’s trophy at the Denso U.S. Nationals will sit alongside the one he won here in his Top Fuel championship season of 2013, when he drove for Alan Johnson Racing.
He said this victory ranks “definitely toward the top. When Connie hired me in 2017 to drive his car, we made a couple of late-round finishes and had a couple of runner-up finishes. So when I went to Funny Car (in 2018), my only regret was I wasn’t able to get a win with Connie Kalitta as my crew chief. Going to Funny Car, I didn’t know if I’d ever get the opportunity to. So when the opportunity presented itself to get back into a dragster, that was one of the reasons. I always looked up to Connie as a kid. I watched him for years and I still look up to him. He’s an awesome team owner, and he’s an awesome crew chief.
“We had a great conversation after Q1 [this weekend] when I almost messed up the run that put us on the pole when I almost double-stepped it,” Langdon said. “We talked about a lot of things, and I took some great advice from him. Then in the semis, when I pedaled it, there were some things I thought I could have done better and some things that he told me that he’s experienced in the past that he felt could make me better. Those are some things why I love driving for him. I’m very, very happy to get a win with him – and winning in Indy makes it all that much sweeter.”
Immediately after Sunday’s victory, Langdon said, “A lot of hard work has gone into this team after making some changes the past couple of years, with me going to Funny Car and then going back to the dragster. Working with Connie [tuner and team owner Kalitta] and the DHL Toyota team, those guys are awesome. We’ve had an awesome car all weekend long. We tested last week, trying to fix some things.”
He said he was appreciative of “everything that Connie has given to this sport and everything that everyone at DHL, Kalitta Air, Toyota, Wix, NGK and Mobil 1 does. Thank you to my team.”
He said his team “has really hunkered down” to iron out any transitional glitches and make the car as perfect as possible.
“With how much uncertainty there has been this year -- where we are racing, if we’re racing, everything is last minute, but this team has really hunkered down. We have a great group of guys here at Kalitta,” he said.
“To win Indy is awesome. It’s kind of one of those things where you say, no matter what, if you win the U.S. Nationals, you’ve had a good year. I think right now we are free-rolling for the rest of the year. We gained some valuable points that we needed to make up from the last couple of races. We went out early with some issues in dropping cylinders and we got it fixed, and it showed in today's results. Connie did a great job in tuning the car, along with Kurt [Elliot] and the whole DHL crew,” Langdon said.
A Kalitta Motorsports Toyota driver has won in one of the two nitro-powered classes in each of the past four U.S. Nationals (Doug Kalitta, 2019 in Top Fuel and JR Todd, 2017 and 2018 in Funny Car).
Moreover, the organization has had a winner at the past seven “major” NHRA events: the Winternationals, Gatornationals, U.S. Nationals, and Finals.
LANGDON TOPS LEADERBOARD, MILLICAN SAYS RACERS ARE SHOW-OFFS, DAKIN EYEING REPLACEMENTS, WILL SCHUMACHER EARN NO. 11 HERE?
LANGDON GETS LONG-AWAITED GREEN HAT – Shawn Langdon used his 3.728-second elapsed time from Friday evening qualifying to secure the No. 1 qualifying spot, his first in a dragster in five years, since the March 2015 Gatornationals.
It also marks his second No. 1 start at the U.S. Nationals, and he said it “feels good. Feels back to like how the car was in testing on the first day of Pomona this year. The car is fast. It was fast last [Friday] night. Top-end dropped those cylinders. I’m hurting the motor pretty good. So today we were kind of trying to take a conservative approach. Missed the Q2. Went after it on Q3. The reason the miles an hour were down was that it just plain shut off. Just because we weren’t really sure where dropping cylinders would come in.
Still, he recorded a 3.75.
“Yeah, and it was actually projected to go a 3.59 or a 3.70,” Langdon said. “The guys just did a great job. We’ve been working really hard. We’ve been doing some testing, trying to get this car turned back around. The past couple races don’t show what this car is capable of. It’s a good-running car. Just glad that we got everything back in sync in time for these last couple of races. What better time than now?”
On the whole, he indicated he’s confident for the first round, when his opponent will be class newcomer Joey Haas, the No. 16 seed.
Langdon said, “Every race you go to Sunday you want to win. We feel good with what we were able to accomplish in qualifying. The two runs we had were really good runs which were in a cooler track conditions and we smoked today. But we feel like we can fix that area where it smoked with no problem. It always feels good to have a competitive car.”
He described Friday night’s run that held up all day Saturday: “It felt really good. It’s kind of funny – I’ve been doing a lot of bracket racing lately, so I’ve been concerned about my reaction times lately. I hit the tree, and I flinched on it. For the first time on the track, I was kind of thinking, ‘Man, I missed the tree.’ Then it was like, ‘Whoa – man. This car is really pulling.’ I quickly forgot about that. Then I felt it kind of lay over pretty good. It expired the motor pretty good, but I wasn’t going to lift. We knew that this was probably the session to get top eight. We were really kind of going for it, so I wasn’t liftin’. We’ve struggled lately with dropping cylinders, and we came put here last week and tested. We felt like we made some good runs that we were happy with. So we felt confident coming into here. It feels good, rewarding, that we’ve got a good car. Connie [team owner Kalitta] and Kurt [crew chief Elliot] did a good job, and the DHL guys [crew] did a great job, giving me a [competitive] car. I feel proud of my guys.”
SHOWING OFF – Clay Millican had a confession to make: “We’re show-offs. We racers, we’re all show-offs.”
To illustrate his point, he recalled a really late night at the racetrack in his IHRA days.
“It happened with IHRA from time to time. We were the last pair of cars. We were sitting No. 1, so it was probably Bruce Litton beside us, most likely. The place had basically emptied out, because it’s nearing 1 a.m. We were in the water box. They were finishing the clean-up which made it even later. There is one family on the left-hand side of the grandstands – and the grandstands aren’t huge there, but it is a family: a mom, dad, a couple of kids,” Millican recalled.
“They’ve got a blanket, and I see them gathering their stuff. They're going to leave and they are literally the last ones there,” he said. “I got on the radio, and I told my guys, ‘Y’all go yell at them and tell them if they will stay and watch our run, I'll give every one of them a T-shirt. I want somebody to see this.’
“And they did. When we towed the car back, they were at the trailer and they all got T-shirts and hats and hero cards. But we wanted somebody to see it besides us,” Millican said.
And even today, he said he still thinks the main goal is performing in front of spectators.
“We got to do the best we can do to get as many races in as we can so that we can take care of those who take care of us and more importantly,” Millican said, “entertain all the fans that love this sport. It's just a crazy time right now.”
He said, “I always look for the best in everything. If this makes us a healthier country, that's a good thing. All this handwashing and hand sanitizing, all those things, it's not just for COVID. That applies to the common cold. I've always been a bit of a germophobe, even though I'm a big hand shaker and hugger and all that. But for me, all of this is not changing a lot. It will become a normal thing. Right now everything is so different. Masks and all the things, that's all different. But if you think about as much as we all fly, we have seen masks, if we don't they look funny. You're in the airport. You see people with masks on all the time, and now you see everybody with them on. It'll become something we don't even think about it anymore. Years down the road we won't, and if the mask thing continues it'll be something we don't even think about. It's just become like keeping your billfold in your back pocket. You have a mask.
“The only thing I hate about masks,” he said, “is not being able to see people smile. I think all the racers, for the most part, working on the car, it's kind of a hindrance because it's so hot. But if we got to wear a mask to go racing, I’m going to wear a mask. I'm OK with it. It's just really hot for those guys before masks, and now it's really hot because it's harder to breathe. But hey, if this is what we got to do to go race, I'm all for it.”
Like many of his fellow racers, Millican is understanding about the options the NHRA has been up against. And he said he’ll find the pluses in the five-race itinerary that follows this event.
“I'm just glad that we have something to see, and we all know that's subject to change. I would not want to be in NHRA’s position, because no matter what they do, people are going to gripe. I'm not one of them, because I understand it is not up to them – it's up to each individual state, each county. It's a crazy time right now with the COVID deal,” he said. “They're in a tough spot and the race teams are in a tough spot, because we're not able to do what we're out here to do, which is race 24 times a year. That's just not happening. It's just a tough spot for everybody. There's no right or wrong answer. There's no good or bad answer.”
The happy news for Millican is that most of the races , all but Las Vegas, are relatively close to his hometown of Drummonds, Tenn.
“Me and [wife] Donna, our normal way of operating, if it's 12 hours from Memphis, we drive and we take the dogs. And I'm pretty sure that most of the fans love my dogs more than they love me, because people come by all the time and they want to know where Iggy's at,” he said. “We have a lot of fun with that. We love driving to the races. All of them are relatively close as far as that goes and in our 12-hour circle, so we'll have the old toter home busy going up down the road to these races.”
MIGHT MASSEY RETURN TO TOP FUEL? – Top Fuel racer Pat Dakin has competed since the 1960s, and with his 75th birthday approaching in February, the Dayton, Ohio, veteran said Saturday he seriously is looking at stepping from the cockpit.
“I’m getting close to being over it,” he said. “I’m really looking to put somebody in the car for next year. I’ve got three [drivers] in mind that I won’t mention.”
But he did mention one: Spencer Massey.
“I’ve been after Spencer forever,” Dakin said. “Who wouldn’t want him? I’d love to have him That’s my first choice, Spencer. He’s already been driving this thing.”
At least once a year, Massey keeps his license updated and has high praise for Dakin’s dragster and how Dakin can coax such outstanding numbers from it without damaging parts on a regular basis.
Dakin said Massey has been “reluctant” to jump right into this car he feels so comfortable driving, mainly because of business interests that keep him busy. Dakin also ruled himself out of other available drivers’ consideration: “I’m not corporate. I’m too poor for them.”
SCHUMACHER GOES FOR NO. 11 – If he is to extend his distinction as this prestigious racetrack’s most successful racer in any class with an 11th U.S. Nationals victory, Tony Schumacher will have to do it from the bottom half of the ladder Sunday. He will start from the No. 14 slot and meet No. 3-qualified Clay Millican.
Schumacher’s 10 U.S. Nationals triumphs came in 2000, 2002-2004, 2006-2009, 2012, and 2016, and his runner-up finishes happened in 1996 and 2005. Four of his 87 No. 1-qualifying positions have come here (2005-2007, 2014). This 506th appearance for the 84-time winner represents the first of six scheduled races to close out 2020. His plan is at least to leave here with a spot in the top 10. It’s a little bit different perspective this year for the eight-time champion, the most successful NHRA Top Fuel racer ever, who sat out all last season, seeking funding following the disappearance of his 19-year partnership with the U.S. Army.
“Indy is the biggest race of the year. I missed it last year and that hurt,” he said. “I have a great team, coupled with great sponsors, and I’m very much looking forward to redemption. I’ve been fortunate to have 10 great U.S. Nationals wins, and now with Okuma and Sandvik Coromant allowing me the opportunity to go for No. 11, it all seems to be coming together. I’ve won Indy three times with [crew chief] Mike Green, so with him back him in my stable, I feel like this is setting up to be the right place at the right time. Looking at our history together, we have a great opportunity to win another, and I’d love to be able to deliver that for Sandvik and Okuma.”
CORY MAC COULD TIE BIG DADDY – Cory McClenathan, driver of the Nordic Boats/Revchem Composites Dragster, is a two-time U.S. Nationals champion (1996, 1999). The 34-time winner, who ranks ninth on the class’ all-time victories list, has a chance to tie legend Don Garlits’ 35 NHRA wins with a third U.S. Nationals triumph.
McClenathan, who is competing on a race-by-race basis, said, “We’ve been racing [in Indianapolis] for the past few weeks, but this is ‘the’ Indy race, the U.S. Nationals. Whoever gets to hoist that trophy at the end of the day, that’s a big accomplishment, and that’s what I’m looking to do. We’ve had a couple of things happen that prevented us from making good runs at these past few events. [Crew chief] Todd [Okuhara] and the boys are doing a great job. They’ve totally gone over the car, and we’re ready to roll.”
In Friday night qualifying, McClenathan recorded his career-best elapsed time – by one-thousandth of a second – at 3.762 seconds on the 1,000-foot course.
STEVE TORRENCE CAN MAKE SOME HISTORY – Steve Torrence won here in 2005 as a sportsman-level Top Alcohol Dragster racer, before winning in his Capco Contractors Dragster as a pro in 2017. He’s one of 13 Top Fuel drivers who have won both an NHRA series crown and its biggest single event.
Team Capco won two of the three previous events at Lucas Oil Raceway this year. That includes a July 12 victory (in the E3 Spark Plugs Nationals) by his father, Billy, who has owned the track speed record (333.33 mph) since last September.
“Even though only a handful of our fans will get a chance to attend in person, there’s still a different atmosphere going into the Nationals. It’s the Big Go, and if you can’t get excited about the U.S. Nationals, then you need to be doing something else,” Steve Torrence said.
“You think about all the people who’ve hoisted that Wally trophy at Indy: ‘Big Daddy’ [Don Garlits], Shirley Muldowney, [Don] Prudhomme, Kenny Bernstein, Antron [Brown], Tony [Schumacher]. That’s a Hall of Fame list right there, and to be there, too, is really humbling,” he said.
He also has been runner-up at this race in 2013, 2014, and 2016.
A victory Sunday would make him just the eighth Top Fuel driver with multiple triumphs in the U.S. Nationals.
Not only is he trying to become just the third Top Fuel driver to earn three consecutive NHRA championships (after Joe Amato and Schumacher) started the weekend in second place, trailing leader Doug Kalitta by 83 points in a season in which the NHRA has suspended its Countdown playoff format.
Kalitta won the February season-opener, a race the Torrences skipped, but the Torrences owned the other three races completed before Saturday night. (Justin Ashley won the postponed finals of the July 19 Lucas Oil Summernationals during the final qualifying session Saturday.)
Steve Torrence had a 7-4 advantage over his dad, but Billy Torrence can brag that he has won four of their past five meetings, including the final round at last year’s race at St. Louis.
The Torrence tandem has won 28 of the past 53 Mello Yello tour events and become the first father-and-son to face off in multiple Top Fuel finals. Until last year, the only father-son final in Top Fuel history was between the late Scott Kalitta and his dad Connie at Gainesville, Fla., in 1994.
Steve Torrence has qualified third or better in seven of his past eight appearances.
HE’S IN – Joey Haas made the 16-car field for his first NHRA Top Fuel race in dramatic fashion. He barged his way into the lineup in his third and final chance Saturday evening with a run of 3.995 seconds at 296.63 mph.
SHE’S IN – Leah Pruett figured out how to advance to the second round of the Factory Stock Showdown eliminations Saturday, but she was in danger of missing the Top Fuel cut Saturday evening.
The No. 3-ranked driver in the Top Fuel standings had talked about her Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Redeye paint scheme being “fierce.” But that’s what she had to be in the final qualifying session. And she was, reeling off a 3.742-second elapsed time at 326.24 mph to leap into the field at No. 6.
She said, "It only makes sense to have our most fierce paint scheme yet make its encore appearance at the largest race of the year, the U.S. Nats. The fans have absolutely loved this Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Redeye, both the race car and the street version, and we love giving the fans what they want, especially during these times. But what we really need right now is a win. And we have the car, the team, and the consistency for that. We know where we left room for improvement on the table at the last Indy race, and we have a solution for it.”
She had put her expectations in the Friday-night-qualifying basket, saying it would “set the tone for the weekend.” She said, “We have a strong set-up sheet for that” but opened with a provisional No. 14 position overnight and by the end of Saturday’s first session (second overall), she found herself unqualified, bumped from the lineup with one last shot at making the field.
She’s seeking her ninth Top Fuel victory and fourth in Factory Stock Showdown class.
“My most favorite memory of the U.S. Nationals actually comes from the Factory Stock category. It’s from when I won in my Mopar Dodge Challenger Drag Pak in 2018,” Pruett said.
In the Top Fuel class, Pruett will meet No. 11 starter Terry McMillen in Round 1 Sunday.
McMILLEN PREDICTS VICTORY, DRAG-RACING COMMUNITY SUPPORTS LAGANA FAMILY, JOON’S SACRIFICES PAYING OFF, DRIVERS WEIGH IN ON REMAINING 2020 SCHEDULE, FERRE FILLS IN, ZIZZO-ASHLEY SHOWDOWN LOOMS
McMILLEN PREDICTION NOT ALL THAT BOLD - Maybe three or four years ago, fans might have thought Terry McMillen was fantasizing if he said he would win the U.S. Nationals.
But in 2017, McMillen began to shed his underdog role. That year, the Amalie Oil Dragster owner-driver claimed a spot in the eight-car Traxxas Shootout for Top Fuel cars – but that was the result of a lottery. However, later that year – 2017 – at Las Vegas, McMillen became the oldest Top Fuel winner in NHRA history at age 63 years and nearly four months. He had a Wally statue that no one take away from him.
McMillen had tried to qualify for the six-race Countdown to the Championship and until 2017, he seemed to fall maddeningly short by a mere handful of points each time. But he made the top 10 in back-to-back campaigns (2017-2018). And in 2018, the Indiana resident, claimed the sport’s biggest prize: a U.S. Nationals trophy.
As he starts his quest for a 250th start, McMillen has won twice and advanced to seven more final rounds – including at the most recent race, the Dodge Indy Nationals.
Now, no one would be surprised if his prediction earlier this week that he can earn another U.S. Nationals victory comes true.
“You know that you have a car, and with our performance, the car has spoken for itself,” McMillen said. Semifinals one day and the only reason we lost that is because we switched blowers in between runs, and then the last one was the tree deal [McMillen was late on the launch and lost to Steve Torrence].
“Right now, we’re very competitive with what we have,” he said. “There’s a comfort in that, knowing that you have a car and that you don’t have to try to pull a rabbit out of your butt sometimes to make something happen, that you can just relax and go up there and do your normal deal and know that between either what you do or what the car’s going to give you, you have the opportunity to win.
“We’re not trying to go out there and overpower the track. We’re not trying to be the fastest car on the track. But we are trying to be the most consistent car. And if we can maintain the consistency, then we’re going to put ourselves in the position to win at any given time,” he said.
McMillen knows, too, that with increased success comes increased vigilance.
“The biggest concern you have is somebody with a lot more money stealing [crew chief] Rob Wendland. That’s what you’ve really got to look at,” he said. “If we can keep our team together, which I definitely believe we’ve done the best job of doing . . . Amalie has supported us and made sure nobody ever got laid off on our team at all. Nobody got their pay cut. Everybody has maintained the same level as if we were racing 24 races. And I think it built even some more security for us as a team. They look around and see other teams have laid off people – and it sounds like there’s a bunch of big layoffs coming for other teams after Indy for three weeks before we go to Gainesville. If all that happens, we’re not doing any of that stuff.
“What we’ve done,” he said, “is put ourselves in a position, hopefully, to secure the personnel we have and allow ourselves the opportunity to go out there and do as good as we’re doing. There’s no doubt Rob is the reason we’re at a pinnacle at this moment. He has done a great job of tuning the car. Our design of the car last year was good, but this year we took it over the top. We killed it. While it’s still a new car and we’re still making changes to it, the first Indy that we ran, we went back and remodified half the stuff in the back half of the car, because we saw that we needed to do that. There were some things that I was feeling. There were some things the computer was telling us that we needed to look at something and change some things. So we did, and the car got better yet. We did some work on the car going into the U.S. Nationals.
“Hopefully we didn’t go too far and the car goes the other way. But I believe the changes that we’re making right now are educated changes. They’re not guesses. And I believe with that all in mind, we should do well,” he said.
“But again, I think the biggest fear I have is losing Rob Wendland and/or any of my team. Collectively, we are all in our stride. And when you get like that, it’s hard to beat,” he said.
McMillen has been in drag racing a long time and understands that smart people sometimes go elsewhere but end up not clicking with new teammates.
“The grass looks greener on the other side. We’ve seen it many, many times. I know that we’ve lost personnel to big teams and all of a sudden, they’re not there anymore. It didn’t work out for them and they move on and do something different,” he said. “For us, it’s all chemistry right now. Right now we’re all in our stride, doing what we do.”
And then McMillen came right out and made his prediction.
“If we can continue that, I think we’re going to . . . well, I’ll tell you: We’re going to win the U.S. Nationals – that’s what we’re going to do. Then we’ll worry about the next race.”
A second U.S. Nationals triumph in three years would be gratifying in itself for McMillen, but it also might salve his sore back. The Elkhart, Ind., resident had been receiving treatment for bulging disks in his spine before the most recent race. He battled through pain that day to reach the final round, but the nerve pain constantly shooting down his leg far outweighed the pain of seeing Steve Torrence beat him for the trophy. McMillen hardly could hardly walk the next day.
So he realized he needed to solve that problem immediately and reached out to his friend, Dr. Mark Klassen, an orthopedic surgeon in Elkhart. Dr. Klassen is a friend of Dr. Rick Sasso, one of the founders of and a specialist at The Indiana Spine Group. Because of that connection Dr. Sasso agreed to fit McMillen into his schedule Friday, Aug. 14. In order to get McMillen ready to race this weekend, Dr. Sasso performed surgery early Monday morning, Aug. 17, removing part of the disk that was bulging and putting pressure on the nerve. At his post-op appointment Wednesday, the doctor cleared McMillen to resume normal activity, including racing.
RACERS, FANS RALLY TO SUPPORT INJURED DOM LAGANA - NHRA Top Fuel owner-drivers Doug Foley and T.J. Zizzo have known Dom Lagana more than half of his life, since he was a pre-teenager from Scarsdale, N.Y., tagging along at the IHRA and NHRA drag races with his father Bobby and older brother Bobby Jr. as part of the Twilight Zone team.
They literally have watched him grow up and have taken pride in seeing him become a fellow racer in his family’s Nitro Ninja Dragster, as well as in Santo Rapisarda’s cars in Australia. They have enjoyed racing against him and against the two-time champion Torrence Racing team, where Dom Lagana found a perfect fit, along with his brother, as one of “them Capco Boys.” They even have sought his advice and technical help as they have fine-tuned their own programs.
Right now, they know Dom Lagana is the one who needs their help.
And they have joined a virtual army of NHRA drag racers and fans in supporting Lagana as he struggles in an Indianapolis hospital to recover from life-threatening injuries resulting from an auto accident that also seriously injured Top Fuel colleague Richie Crampton and crew member Jake Sanders. Crampton continues to recuperate from multiple injuries, and Sanders was treated and released following the late-night crash Aug. 9.
And what the drag-racing community does, Zizzo said, is support its family. Collectively it has raised nearly $195,000 to help offset medical expenses for Dom Lagana and Crampton, sent up hundreds of prayers, and offered enough well-wishes to fill a race-car hauler. And Friday, during the opening day of pro qualifying for the Denso U.S. Nationals, racers and fans at Lucas Oil Raceway showed solidarity for the Lagana family by wearing “Lagana Strong” T-shirts and New York Yankees baseball caps like the one Dom Lagana is fond of wearing.
“In other major-league sports and among actors and actresses, there’s not that respect among them. NHRA fans are awesome, not because they come out here and support us but because of support for Dom. These fans have rallied together and raised money – I don’t care if it’s $4 or $4 million – they’ve put it in. People are respecting the family and keeping them in their thoughts and prayers. In drag racing – especially in drag racing – there’s respect among our peers to the point that we will do anything for him – anything,” he said. “If it’s silence, if it’s talking about it, if it’s raising money, if it’s wearing a shirt, whatever. We’re all rallying around him, all of us.
“That’s what makes this sport fantastic. It’s the love. It’s the passion we bring to the table,” Zizzo said.
Both he and Foley said they were heartbroken to learn of the accident that happened just hours after Steve Torrence won the Dodge Indy Nationals, the third of four races at Indianapolis since the NHRA’s return from the coronavirus-triggered hiatus.
“I have not been the same since that accident,” Foley said. “It breaks my heart. Nobody in this world – nobody – loves this sport more than the Laganas. They’ve done this for zero dollars, sleeping in vans, doing whatever it took. I’ve sacrificed for this sport, but those guys have suffered for this sport, anything it took to be a part of it. It’s just a tough, tough deal.
“You see Dom grow up from just a child to tuning these cars and being so intelligent and all the things he’s done in his career. And Bobby has been instrumental in us going back racing. We approached him and said, ‘We’re going to need some help. And they were there for us for the entire last 12 months, preparing this car. Even when you didn’t ask, they’d come over and say, ‘Hey – how’d you guys run? Can we give you a hand?’ My heart breaks for that family,” he said. “Every day, [wife] Sheilagh pray for them. We just hope that we can get Dom back out here and just hope this could be just a big hurdle in his life that we could get past.”
Foley said, “I just hope we can come back next year and Dom is out here and we can just start a new year and forget about all this crap.”
Zizzo didn’t race at the previous event but sneaked in briefly to visit with two people: Ron Capps crew chief Rahn Tobler and Dom Lagana. “Those are the only two people I went out of my way to see,” he said, “so to hear that devastating news that Monday morning, it broke my heart.”
Pointing to his “Lagana Strong” T-shirt, Zizzo said, “So whatever I could do to support them . . . This is the least we can do.”
The crowd paused for a moment of silence for Lagana before the Top Fuel class began qualifying Friday night.
Lagana’s brother, fiancée, and sisters shared the following message in an August 31 Facebook post on the Lagana Racing page:
“Although difficult to talk about, we wanted to get an update out for all of Dom’s family, friends and supporters around the world.
It has been just over three weeks since his accident. Dom has battled through lots of issues, some more serious than others. He suffered a head injury and bad burns to his body. He was in a non-induced coma for two weeks and was showing signs of waking up but then caught a bad case of pneumonia. Some of his progress has now been stalled in order to focus on his lungs. The amazing staff at Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Hospital have been strong with their response and treatment for Dom. If there is a focal point to all of your thoughts and prayers right now, it would be for Dom’s lungs to heal and get strong enough to resume the rest of his surgeries. He is fighting for his life every day and still needs your prayers.
“We appreciate everyone respecting our privacy. Thank you all for the amazing support for Dom and his journey. The outpouring of love from around the world has helped us all through this difficult time.
“As Dom rests and prepares for this new chapter, we have adopted the phrase “God Is Love” to help us keep our faith forefront.
“Thank you all and God Bless.
Bobby, Sara, Marie & Laura”
In a pre-race press release, Steve Torrence said, “It has been a very emotional couple of weeks [for our team], but we couldn’t think of anywhere else we’d rather be [this week] than at the U.S. Nationals, competing. We are racers. It’s what we do.”
That and keep a constant vigil for their injured brother.
JOON FIXES PROBLEMS, SOLDIERS ON – After the third Indianapolis race in August, the trip from the racetrack home to the workshop was only about one mile.
But for the short ride, Hot Wheels™ Americana Series™ Premium Car Care Products Dragster driver Lex Joon and crew chief wife Gerda had to wonder just how much longer the road to their goal would be. But they climbed from their hauler that has their “Never Quit” slogan plastered on it and dug into the race car to find the problem that put him out in the first round three weeks ago.
“We went through the fuel and clutch system to straighten out some inconsistencies that prevent us from making consistent runs. We found things that we could change to make it where we can rely on our settings when we send our race car down the track,” Lex Joon said. “It shows it wants to run, so I’m not worried the performance is not there. Once we get it all straightened out, it’s a matter of making laps and getting it done.
“The plan,” he said during the week leading up to tonight’s event kickoff for the pro classes, “is to qualify for the U.S. Nationals - our first time - and be part of the biggest drag race in the world. The circumstances, from a weather point of view, look like it’s going to be ‘Go Fast,’ especially because evening qualifying is in place.”
Gerda Joon still puts in her long hours as manager of the Danville, Ind., location of the Advance Auto Parts store. And Lex Joon has applied for a temp job as a truck driver.
“We are still working on the funding side of things. in the meantime, we keep knocking on doors to find funding to be part of the U.S. Nationals and beyond,” the Dutch 2005 FIA/European Top Fuel champion said. And the Joons are here, back again, making that one-mile drive to Lucas Oil Raceway right in their town of Brownsburg.
Before the Friday night qualifying session, Joon said, ‘We are aiming to make all three qualifying runs when funding is in place. This will give us the best opportunity to get us in the show.
“The team is ready to go. We have all parts, pieces, and crew in place and ready to go to qualify for the U.S. Nationals,” he said proudly, reminding that “this is not a simple task, given the circumstances like the pandemic and other things taking place. We still have time to get it done, so we keep going after it. Gerda and I are really running our team from a paycheck point of view. We need to have certain things in place to make it happen and give ourselves a chance to shine the way we can and deserve.”
DRIVERS TALK ABOUT LATEST SCHEDULE – The NHRA announced Wednesday that it has finalized the 2020 schedule with races at Gainesville, St. Louis, Dallas, Houston, and Las Vegas and canceled six others (Charlotte, Bristol, Pomona, Denver, Brainerd, and Topeka).
As drivers prepared Friday for the first of three qualifying runs at the Denso U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis, reaction to the notice was largely popular, if pragmatic, in the Top Fuel pits.
“I’m excited about the announcement,” Justin Ashley said. “Getting 11 in during 2020 is a great accomplishment and speaks volumes about NHRA, especially doing so with fans in attendance.
“Personally, I’ve enjoyed racing in Indy. I’m happy to race anywhere. But I’m glad we’ll have a chance to see some more fans across the country. Health is always top priority, and it’ll continue to stay that way while we travel.”
Like Ashley, Shawn Langdon said, “It is good to be racing. I enjoyed the Indy races, since they were right in my backyard. It will be good to see the fans in other parts of the country again. I quit worrying about how many races we would have in April. We will do what we can. I didn’t have a number in mind. We are going to try to do the best we can.”
For points leader Doug Kalitta, the announcement triggered a bit of a flashback.
“When I saw the rest of the schedule it reminded me of the Countdown. We know how important those last six races will be. We just have to come out here this weekend and do what we did last year,” the 2019 U.S. Nationals winner said. “I am excited to be back in the trusty old red Mac Tools dragster. It will be good to get around the country again. Gainesville is always a great place to run, and Connie’s dragster has won the last two there. The other tracks are all good tracks. We will show up in Vegas and hopefully leave there ahead.”
T.J. Zizzo’s plans are in limbo a bit because his results this week might change his outlook on the final five races.
“We have a chance to win two events this weekend,” he said, alluding to the final-round runoff against Justin Ashley that’s set to unfold during the third overall / final qualifying session Saturday. “There are a lot of points at stake. We’ll see where we end up.”
No matter what, Zizzo said, “We will definitely do one [of the final five events]. St. Louis probably would be our choice.” The race, technically at Madison, Ill., is downstate from his Lincolnshire, Ill., home.
He said the Las Vegas finale well could be off the table for his team, because his trip that far west was tied in with the annual SEMA Show, which has been scrapped this year. “We probably won’t venture out there just for the race,” Zizzo said. “We’ll see.”
Doug Foley, who is the first racer to our knowledge to use “COVID-19” as a verb, said the schedule for the rest of the year “hurts us. Look at the races they eliminated. We have no Virginia. We lost two Charlottes. Lost Atlanta. We lost Bristol. We lost everything in our backyard. The advantage of being based out of Mooresville, N.C., was totally taken away this year.
“Now, there were advantages,” he said. “We came here in July. First got licensed again in the Phoenix test. Then went to Phoenix, ran there. Got COVID-19’d out of Gainesville. And then the advantage for us is we came here in July and we left everything here from July till now. So it's basically been based out of Indy for the last two months. The good part for us is we didn't have a lot of transportation costs, a lot of fuel costs, and all of that. That's good for us,” Foley said.
“But for the most part, it's just been a different year. There's no way anybody can explain this year. Nobody was made for it. Nobody understood it. This year would have been 10 times really different if it wasn’t a presidential election. No matter what side of the aisle you're on, it doesn't matter – this year would have been drastically different and the pandemic could have been handled totally differently if it wasn’t an election year. So we just had all the storms come together,” he said. “You never thought it could get this bad. I’ve never looked forward to Christmas so much so we can start a new year, get this crap over with, and roll on.”
The Foley & Lewis Strutmasters.com team will compete at just one of the remaining five races.
“Gainesville and we're done,” Foley said. “It doesn't pay for us. This was always a learning year for us. This was always a ‘Let's get our feet wet again. Let's get the team together’. We're building a new 10,000-square-foot shop in Mooresville. That's what I do for a living now. I'm a builder. So for us, it was more of ‘Let's get our parts, our pieces, together. Let's build some more relationships. Been a long time since I've had guys working for me.
“We qualified sixth at the race three weeks ago. That's pretty good for a team that just decided to start up. We haven't had a night session, so we're kind of eager to see what can we do at night. This is the first one, the only one of the year, so we'll go do that. We're fortunate enough Red Line Oil came on board with us this weekend and helped us out.”
The schedule following this race is:
Sept. 27 - Amalie Oil Gatornationals - Gainesville, Fla.
Oct. 4 - AAA Insurance Midwest Nationals – Madison, Ill.
Oct. 18 - AAA Texas FallNationals – Ennis, Texas
Oct. 25 - Mopar Express Lane Spring Nationals - Baytown, Texas
Nov. 1 - Dodge Nationals - Las Vegas, Nev.
FERRÉ FILLING IN WITH LEVERICH CAR – With the blessing of Terry Haddock, Cameron Ferré is substituting this weekend for Joe Morrison in the Leverich family entry.
“Choosing not to go to Indy was tough. When Gary saw that there were 18 cars signed up on Monday, he told me he wanted to go at least make a pass on Friday. Right2Breathe [Morrison’s foundation] has a big fundraiser car show on Saturday, and we’re setting up today,” Morrison said.
“I made a commitment and need to honor that, even if it means not going to the biggest drag race of the year,” he said. “That said, you can bet that next year I will make sure there are no conflicts in my schedule. We weren’t planning to go to Indy, so I thought it would be OK.”
Moreover, Morrison said, “The other reason behind my decision is this: We are speaking with several potential sponsors for next year right now. We have some aggressive goals, and I am committed to achieving them. Part of that plan includes being eligible for the AAA Road to the Future award. That means I can only enter four races this season to maintain my eligibility for 2021. We are going to two more races. I am already entered in the Gatornationals, and after that event we will decide whether we go to St. Louis or Dallas. If I went to Indy, it would guarantee that I could not be eligible for the Road to the Future award next year.
“Believe me, I was questioning myself when I suggested to Gary that Cameron could sit in for me, but I know it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “ I am hoping that my choice to not stand in the way of the team learning more data, giving Cameron a ride at Indy, and honoring my commitment will all put giant deposits in the karma bank!”
He said, “By the way, I fully expect the car to go out and run a 3.90 something.”
It didn’t Friday night, but Ferré has two more chances Saturday.
“I have been having phone calls with Cameron to talk about the car and provide some insight,” Morrison said.
ZIZZO-ASHLEY SHOWDOWN SET – To complete the Top Fuel eliminations for the rain-interrupted Lucas Oil Summernationals from July 19, first-time finalists Justin Ashley and T.J. Zizzo will settle the matter Saturday during the third overall (and final) qualifying session.
Ashley attended many IHRA races as a youngster as part of dad Mike Ashley’s Pro Modified entourage. Zizzo was an IHRA Top Fuel regular. But the two are just starting to become pals – which has no bearing on how much each wants to defeat the other Saturday.
“I never knew him. I just knew of him from the IHRA days but never actually knew him personally,” Ashley said. They became more acquainted as guests recently on WFO Radio with Joe Castello. “He's a super-nice guy. He's such a good guy, really is just the funniest guy.
“We originally spoke right after it started raining [at the incomplete race], before the final rounds, to kind of come up with a plan. That's really the first time I've ever met him, and I came away so impressed. He's just such a good dude, such a good guy, down to Earth. They have a really awesome team over there, and to the extent that we talked, it's only been good things about each other. I think we both have mutual respect for the teams. And we're both excited for the opportunity that we have, and we both also know that in a world, with what it looks like right now in 2020, with all that's going on we really have to put things in perspective and understand that, yeah, we both want to win. We want to win as bad as anything. But at the end of the day, we're happy to be there,” he said.
“So that was the first time I met him, at the Summernationals,” Ashley said, “and he's just like a goofy, funny, happy-go-lucky kind of guy. Just like the kind of guy you want to be around? It's awesome. It's fun.
Ashley is relatively new at this class, and Zizzo doesn't get to come out here all the time. It appears, though, that once the two get to see each other more often, they’ll become really strong friends.
“Exactly. I'm sure of it. I think that we also have a lot of similarities. He has a part-time team. We have a part-time team. He's got to go back to work on Monday. So do I. So I think that we match in a lot of ways, characteristics of us as individuals, but our team, too. It'll be a lot of fun,” the Strutmaster.com Dragster driver who calls himself “The Influencer” because of his social media skills. “It's funny, these first seven or eight weeks or however long it's been since the Summernationals, I spent that first few days like I couldn't get my mind off it. Then after a while I was able to settle down and get back into a groove and realize, ‘All right, the time is going to pass anyway, we'll get there, and when it's time it's time.’ So here we are now. The time passed, and it went by pretty quick. So I'm happy. I'm happy about it.”
Both of them are happy. And it’s a bit of a mutual admiration society sort of arrangement.
Zizzo said of Ashley, “He’s such a nice young man. He really is. He’s respectful. He’s polite. What a good kid.” Then with a wink, Zizzo said, “I don’t know if Mike Ashley raised him well or if Justin’s mom did. I’m not quite sure. I’m going to give a lot of credit to Justin’s mom [Mindy Ashley]. It’s cool stuff.
“So far, that weekend is the best we’ve ever had in our careers – that includes my father’s racing career at an NHRA race,” Zizzo said. “So win, lose, or draw, we had the best weekend we’ve ever had.”
However, he said, “It’ll be nice to finish this one off, let me tell you. There have been a lot of restless nights, no doubt about it. The first night I got home, I was already dreaming about Justin. Like, that’s scary.”
After recovering from his “Jennifer or Justin?” moment, Zizzo, like Ashley, thought back to the July 19 moment before the final round. Ashley’s crew was thrashing on his dragster, trying to get it to the starting line. So he’s rather happy the team had some more time to prep for his race against Zizzo.
“I know – it was crazy. We had a few funky things go on,” Ashley said. “We did some damage to the block. Steve Torrence actually came over himself with his team to actually work on the blower, helping us out. So it's a testament to the Capco boys over there. But yeah, turned out to work out well for us.”
Zizzo said, “Everyone needs luck in this sport. If that was us in that predicament, I’d be happy, as well. Nd who knows? They probably could have gotten that thing together. We could each have our car prepared well, go to the starting line, and it wouldn’t start. You never know.”
Right now, though, Zizzo said his so-called “Rust-Oleum Rocket” is a bracket car. “[Crew chief] Mike Kern has it under control – which s pretty bad to the bone. It’s about knowing what your car can and cannot do. Sometimes you’ve got to push it a little bit. That’s what we might have to do.”
These two new friends already have a friendly wager on the outcome of their final round. Ashley is from Long Island, metropolitan New York City, Zizzo from suburban Chicago. Both cities have distinctly different signature pizzas: Chicago its deep-dish style, New York its thin crust.
“Whoever loses has to buy the other team pizza,” Zizzo said.
“It’ll be Lou Manati’s, for sure,” Zizzo said, allowing for the possibility that he might have to treat.
But he was reminded that if Ashley loses, he, Zizzo, will receive thin-crust pies.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Zizzo said. “Fold that s--- up and stuff it in your mouth, all greasy and stuff.”
But somebody suggested that he would be getting an uneven payoff, that Ashley’s crust would be cheating Zizzo of some extra carbs. And the next suggestion was that maybe Ashley could throw in some product from one of his newest sponsors: Manscaped. It is billed as “the first and leading brand dedicated to men's grooming and hygiene below the waist. The product range includes only the best tools, formulations, and accessories for a simple and effective male-grooming routine.”
So pizza and a “manscape” for Zizzo if he wins??
“Hahahahahahahaha!” was Ashley’s initial reaction to the idea. “I don’t know about that. Boy, that’s a tough question to answer. How can I be politically correct with this one? When the race is over, we’ll have to worry about the best then. Whether it’s pizza or whether it’s manscaping, there’s going to be a heavy-duty bet involved. We’ll make sure it’s enjoyable.”
As an aside, Ashley said the new sponsor’s Manscaped product line “works really well. I'm excited. They do a great job in marketing as an organization. And the truth of the matter is, they’re about looking good. And when you look good, you feel good and you perform good. That's similar to what we do here, and it happens to fit the NHRA demographic really well.
“I've already got some people who come up to me and kind of had a chuckle about it,” he said. “But the truth of the matter is I'm excited to represent them, and I'm proud to represent them. I think we're a really good match.
He promised: “I will say this: There will be no live demonstrations.”