2021 NHRA GATORNATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
HART PULLS OFF TOP FUEL TRIUMPH IN HIS FIRST PRO RACE AT GATORNATIONALS - Debuting Top Fuel driver Josh Hart likened his Sunday task of facing current and three-time class champion Steve Torrence in the Amalie Oil Gatornationals quarterfinals as “a David and Goliath situation.”
The Biblical David sling-shotted a stunning upset. But David had to face only one Goliath. Hart had to battle four of them at Gainesville, Fla.
“True story,” Hart said with a laugh that definitely was tinged with relief.
But along with help from crew chief Ron Douglas and their team, Hart knocked them all out. His line-up was fierce: six-time IHRA champion and always-dangerous Clay Millican, NHRA dominator Torrence, 2020 NHRA Rookie of the Year and lightning-quick leaver Justin Ashley, and finally 2013 Top Fuel champion Shawn Langdon.
Hart won with a 3.826-second elapsed time at 323.66 mph on the 1,000-foot Gainesville Raceway course to become the fourth NHRA racer to win in his first professional appearance. He is the first since Darrell Russell did so 20 years ago at the traditional season-opener, the Winternationals at Pomona, Calif. The others were K.C. Spurlock in Funny Car in 1990 and Gary Scelzi in Top Fuel in 1997.
“A shoutout to Ronnie Swearingen. Swearingen will understand this – we worked together for years,” Douglas said in celebration. “We ‘Spurlocked’ ’em, Buddy. For us to get to come out and do it with Josh is awesome. He and [wife] Brittanie are two of the best people you could ever meet. They’ve given us free reign to build this thing [the Burnyzz/Technet Dragster] as we saw fit, and they’ve been very supportive and great. And Josh clearly can drive the car.”
He proved he can do that, for sure. But Hart preferred to deflect the praise. Instead, he credited his team: “Ron Douglas is awesome. And the group of guys, they’ve done it all. That’s where the real magic happens. Ron’s almost like the Babe Ruth of drag racing – he was almost calling his shot, which was kind of creepy but he was doing it. It was awesome.
“The guys [crew] and Ron Douglas, they did a fabulous job,” he said. “And once you know you have a good, solid car underneath you, it’s OK after that. You just focus on your lights and go rounds.
“It’s something absolutely to be proud of. We own everything, my wife and I. It’s turned out really, really good, not from an appearance standpoint, but these guys are the real deal. They don’t just look the part,” Hart said, surrounded by his mechanics in the pits.
“Steve Torrence was super-nice to me in the staging lanes. We had a good conversation,” Hart said. “He said, ‘Just kind of run your own thing, man.’ That’s what I did, and it worked out for me.”
Hart, though, was under no delusion that every start will turn out this successfully.
“I know they’re not this easy all the time. I won Indianapolis back to back in my alcohol car [Top Alcohol Dragster], then I got my butt handed to me when I got too comfortable. So no, drag racing’s not like that – you have to keep really working at it,” he said.
Douglas, whose last trip to the winners circle as a tuner, was in 2018 at Sonoma, Calif., can attest to that. He said, “It’s been a tremendous amount of work [for] me and the entire team all winter, especially myself and Dave Gaterell and Doug Wilson. Spent a lot of time at Ocala, at Josh’s, putting all this stuff together. To be able to come out and string a few round-wins together and get out of here with a win is a testament to the ownership, first of all, and the team that we are able to put together here.”
The fact they’ve come together this quickly is remarkable, considering that when Hart won his semifinal race, Douglas said, “I really haven’t gotten to know him. We’re in the honeymoon phase.”
Langdon, who ran a 4.244-second elapsed time at 219.08 mph in the final round, had hoped to accomplish several things. He wanted to give boss Connie Kalitta another Gatornationals victory – and a double-up nitro performance after teammate JR Todd won the Funny Car trophy. And Langdon, of course, wanted one for himself that would have completed the so-called Grand Slam of Drag Racing that includes the Winternationals, U.S. Nationals, and Finals. Todd accomplished it Sunday.
“We had a great car all day. I felt like we were going to get the win. I think we just had a little too much in the final,” the DHL Dragster said. “Congrats to Josh Hart.”
Hart said this biggest feat of his career, one that fans will talk about as the NHRA ages far beyond its 70th birthday, really hasn’t sunk in yet.
“Off to Atlanta [his next scheduled race]. That’s how I’m going to feel tomorrow,” he said.
But Sunday night, Hart was the toast of Florida among drag racing fans. He’s a businessman, who has a sprawling collectible-car enterprise that’s growing at the same rate his Top Fuel career is, just 30 miles down the road at Ocala. That’s where another drag racer has made a mark, as well. “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, one of the world’s most famous drag racers, is a friend and occasional client of Hart, and he gave the young pro a top endorsement. Garlits said his Burnyzz business, with its 14-bay garage and 15 employees and expanding services, is “top of the line and reasonable.”
So has this native of Fort Wayne, Ind., this Florida transplant, become one of the state’s favorite sons, like Garlits and Darrell Gwynn? Only time will tell, but he has vaulted into the region’s and the nation’s drag-racing lore.
Hart said Garlits’ shop and renowned museum “is about eight miles from [Burnyzz]. He’s actually taught me a lot. He’s helped me in the shop, and he sometimes comes for dyno tuning in my shop. He’s remarkable. He’s a living legend.”
And Garlits had stopped by Hart’s pit several times during the weekend to encourage and maybe offer advice. And he offered his congratulations Sunday.
“Don Garlits was here a few moments ago, and he said, ‘Sometimes it’s just your day.’ I believe that today,” Hart said.
When “Big Daddy” Don Garlits tells you something, you’d better believe it. Susan Wade
DSR FUNNY CAR STREAK SNAPPED AS TODD EARNS FIRST GATORNATIONALS WALLY - It has been 517 days, 56 competitive passes and 14 national events since a driver not associated with Don Schumacher Racing last won an NHRA race in Funny Car.
On Sunday, that streak was snapped by round two.
With Matt Hagan eliminated in round one and top qualifier Ron Capps falling out one round later, that opened the door for a new driver to earn a Wally trophy in Funny Car for the first time since October 14, 2019 when Robert Hight hoisted the hardware.
And J.R. Todd took full advantage of that opportunity.
Todd put together four masterful rounds Sunday at the 52nd annual AMALIE Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals, ending in a dramatic pedalfest with a returning Robert Hight to earn his 19th career NHRA Camping World Racing Series victory and 10th in Funny Car.
It was also Todd’s first win at the historic Gatornationals as Todd has now swept the remaining NHRA “majors” associated with the biggest races in the sport.
“It is awesome. I keep saying I wish Englishtown was still on the schedule so we could try and knock that one off, but to have all of the majors that are left on the schedule checked off, that has been a goal of mine for a long time,” Todd said. “This is an extra special race just because of my buddy Eric Medlen who we lost here. I’ve been wanting to win here so bad in his honor. This is just awesome.”
Todd’s win Sunday at Gainesville Raceway came in thrilling fashion. Matched up against Robert Hight, who was making his return to the class after more than a year away from the sport, both drivers instantly lost traction and went up in a cloud of smoke moments after taking the green light.
After a few throttle hits, Todd regained enough traction to power his DHL Toyota Camry to the finish with a 5.184-second pass at 286.38 mph. Hight attempted to match his opponent, but was not able to find the needed grip in limping to the finish line with a 6.591 at 144.41 mph.
“It was a little warm and the sun was on the track and at this place, the later in the day with the sun out, the track can just get hot and nasty. That was definitely the case in the final,” Todd said. “The starting line wasn’t as good as it was early and we both blew the tires off. What instantly goes through your mind is you expect to see Robert go driving away from us and I never saw him. It is at that point you have to let this thing calm down. It seems like an eternity when you have to do that. You then roll into the throttle and try to have patience.
“I never saw him next to me or driving away from me so it is at that point you go wide open and start searching for that win light. When I saw it come on, I couldn’t wait to climb out of the roof hatch and celebrate.”
Fortunately, the rounds leading up to the final were much more mundane - in nitro terms - with three solid passes in wins against Blake Alexander, Tim Wilkerson and Cruz Pedregon.
Todd’s quickest pass of the weekend came in a round one win over Alexander as Todd powered to a 3.933 at 327.35 mph to set the tone for the day. He did much of the same in rounds two and three, dispatching of Wilkerson in the closest race of the day - a 3.940 to a 3.977 - before reaching the final with a 3.970 against Pedregon.
Hight had wins over Bob Bode, John Force and Bob Tasca to reach his first final round since the NHRA Finals at Pomona Raceway in November of 2019.
While neither of the final round competitors were directly responsible, when Bob Tasca eliminated Matt Hagan and Ron Capps in back-to-back rounds, it opened the class up to a driver not associated with Don Schumacher Racing for the first time in almost 16 months. Before that, DSR had won 14 consecutive races including a sweep of the 2020 season.
But with the return of John Force Racing - specifically his final round opponent - combined with a more traditional NHRA schedule, it felt like a return to normal for Todd.
“DSR hands down whipped everyone last year. To have JFR and a majority of the teams back out here and to run more races and not half the schedule, it felt like we are starting to return to normal,” Todd said. “No disrespect to all of the other drivers out there, but in my opinion Robert Hight is hands down the best driver in Funny Car. That team sets the benchmark for the rest of us. When you can knock them off in the final round, that makes you feel like you really accomplished something.”
While Sunday was just the beginning of a grueling season, drivers have to start somewhere and there is no better place to start than on top.
“It was nice to put our DHL Toyota Camry in the winner’s circle. Our goal every week is to show up and win. 2021 is a new year and it’s a good way to start off the season with a win here at one of the biggest races of the year,” Todd said. “Now we need to ride that momentum as long as we can. This is one you want to check off the list when you see the schedule whether it’s the first race or the third race. It’s the first time this has ever been the first race of the season and I guess we’re the points leader until we get out west.” Larry Crum
ANDERSON EARNS BIRTHDAY VICTORY AT GATORNATIONALS - Happy birthday Greg Anderson.
For the first time in his illustrious career, Anderson won a race on his birthday as the veteran racer took the top qualifier award on Saturday and followed it up with four round wins and a Wally on his 60th birthday to earn his 95th career win at the 52nd annual AMALIE Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway.
“It was a great day. I’ve never actually won on my birthday before and I guess I gave myself a birthday present today which is pretty darn cool,” Anderson said. “This is pretty special. I’ve always liked Gainesville. It is a cool place to race. We had a great run (testing) last week. We got our cars all tuned up, the car ran flawlessly all weekend and the breaks just fell our way. Now here we are in the winners circle.”
Anderson defeated Troy Coughlin Jr. in Sunday’s final as the battle of Summit Racing Equipment vs. JEGS was reunited just a few months after Pro Stock legend Jeg Coughlin Jr. retired from the class.
The third-generation racer, in only his second career Pro Stock final, put up a fight, but was no match for Anderson. The four-time champion powered his RaceStar Wheels Chevrolet Camaro to a 6.602-second pass at 209.33 mph, easily driving around Coughlin in the familiar black and yellow JEGS Camaro who shook the tires at the hit of the throttle.
“It was quite a sight when I pulled up there for the final and I looked over and was like, ‘oh my God I am running Jeg again. He won’t go away,’” Anderson said with a laugh. “That is exactly what I thought and I treated it like it was him. We have a lot of history with that whole family. It obviously continues now and I think that is great.”
With the win, Anderson now needs just two victories to tie and three to pass Warren Johnson for the all-time lead in the class. Johnson finished his historic career with 97 wins.
Anderson had a strong showing all weekend at Gainesville Raceway, posting eight laps among the top handful in the class. On Sunday he watched as first round opponent Cristian Cuadra went red in round one, and then never trailed in his rounds two and three wins over Alex Laughlin and Deric Kramer.
Anderson’s 6.550 at 211.13 mph in round one was his quickest pass of the day and he followed that up with runs of 6.555 and 6.569 to reach his first final round since Dallas in October.
Coughlin had wins over Aaron Stanfield, Fernando Cuadra Jr. and Mason McGaha to reach his first final round since August. Coughlin’s teammate and defending Pro Stock champion Erica Enders was upset in round one on a holeshot against Cuadra.
Anderson’s win, his fifth all-time at the Gatornationals, was not only special because of his birthday celebration, but it marked his first win in the class since October of 2019 making for one truly memorable weekend.
“It does (stand out) for a lot of reasons. I haven’t won in about a year and a half, so you obviously start to doubt if you can win again,” Anderson said. “Those doubts are always in your mind. Until you do it again, you never know when your last one is your last one. So this really is special.
“At this age and on my birthday, I will remember this one for a long time. I guess we can still do this.” Larry Crum
MATT SMITH FINALLY MAKES STATEMENT HE WANTS WITH SEASON-OPENING VICTORY AT FLORIDA CLASSIC - When he outran “Flyin’ Ryan” Oehler Sunday in the Pro Stock Motorcycle final round, Matt Smith scored back-to-back victories at the NHRA’s Amalie Oil Gatornationals.
But in Smith’s mind, it was his first “legitimate” triumph in the Gainesville, Fla., spring classic.
“My whole life I’ve always wanted to win the Gatornationals – whole life. Yes, I won it last year, but it wasn’t the true Gatornationals, because it was mid-season,” he said, referring to the schedule change in pandemic-plagued 2020 that moved the race from March to September.
“We didn’t have the quickest bike here, by no means. We did have the fastest,” Smith said of bis Denso Buell.
On a day when 200-mph speeds were as plentiful for Pro Stock Motorcycle racers as fruit on Florida citrus trees, Smith swept to his 27th victory on a wave of 200s
In the first round against Jim Underdahl, Smith recorded a 200.89. He used a 200.71 in the quarterfinals to beat Hector Arana Jr., who recorded the first 200-mph mark on this Gainesville Raceway track in 2018 and had another Saturday. He outran semifinal opponent Steve Johnson with a 200.29. And in the final round against Oehler, he had a 200.65-mph speed to go with his winning 6.785-second elapsed time.
Runner-up Oehler, seeking his second career victory, countered with a 6.869, 196.53. Oehler had advanced against Jerry Savoie, Karen Stoffer, and Matt Smith Racing rider Scotty Pollacheck.
During Saturday qualifying, Smith’s wife, Angie, clocked another 200 as a follow-up to her winning 2020 Finals performance. Angelle secured the No. 1 qualifying position as she joined the 200-MPH Club.
Smith has been on a roll since the Finals last November at Las Vegas. In an early-December Manufacturers Cup meet at South Georgia Motorsports Park, he had registered a 201.85 mph – unofficial for NHRA record-keeping – that topped his NHRA national mark of 201.76 that he set here last season. And he ran a 6.728 at Valdosta, Ga., that was just eight-thousandths of a second short of matching Andrew Hines’ national-record 6.720-second from the 2019 Gatornationals.
So the big question is who can interrupt Matt Smith’s momentum this season?
As for Smith, he said he’s grateful: “Denso, Lucas Oil, Mark Stockseth, Greg Butcher Trucking . . . I can’t say enough about all the people that help me – and my crew. I couldn’t do it without these guys. I’m proud to be associated with this team and to own this team and to have these bikes running like they are and my wife to help me out. I appreciate everything.”
He already knows these consistently gaudy numbers sometimes don’t come without adversity. “The long offseason was to make stuff more reliable. Then I come out here first pass and go in the sand trap. A front brake rotor exploded on us,” he said.
“But I’ve got to thank Joey [Gladstone] and Cory [Reed]. They gave me a front wheel and front brake system to put back on this bike, because I’ve got four bikes out here. I didn’t have a spare with me. They made it happen so I could go down this racetrack and win this race,” Smith said. “I’m just proud to be able to notch that one on my belt.”
Whatever might have beset him Sunday, it wasn’t enough to deny him. Susan Wade
FORCE LEADS TEAM BACK BUT REIMAGINES HIS ENTIRE OPERATION, BIKE TRIO HITS 200 MPH, TOUGH DAY FOR SALINAS FAMILY, ALEXANDER CLICKS WITH HEAD, GLENN GETS HIS LONG-AWAITED SHOT WHILE OTHER NEWCOMERS MISS THE CUT
REIMAGINED JFR TRYING NEW APPROACHES – For at least a decade, success seemed to come easily for Funny Car racer John Force. His reputation morphed from leaker to legend almost as fast as his 337.33-mph career-best speed. He seemed untouchable, even sold T-shirts with the word emblazoned on them. As if 2007 (the year the sport lost John Force Racing rising star Eric Medlen and nearly lost Force, as well, in a catastrophic accident at Texas Motorplex) weren’t jarring enough, along came 2020. Coronavirus and all its attending issues had a negative impact on everyone to some degree. But for Force, a man with a staggering $8 million payroll, the pandemic packed an especially powerful punch.
Force planned to come back with his full four-car team as soon as the sanctioning body gave everyone the green light. In the meantime, he tried to keep all of his employees working, even against the adamant advice of his attorneys. He tried to remain loyal to his staff, his sport, and himself. But overwhelming financial dictates made him do something decidedly un-John-Force-ish: throw in the towel for a full year. He said he couldn’t bring himself even to say “coronavirus” or “COVID-19.” He just called it “19.” He dreaded it for its ruinous potential, both medically and financially, and finally had to admit that he had found an enemy tougher and meaner and more unforgiving than he ever thought nemesis Al Hofmann could be.
But just like he did when he was young and lived in his car parked in brother Walker’s driveway and existed daily on a boiled egg and soda pop, John Force survived. Nothing coronavirus threw at him could stop him. Walker Force wasn’t surprised. Years ago, he said of the brother called a daredevil, “You can knock him down, whip him, stomp on him, but the next day he’ll be knocking on your door.”
The team had its casualties, chief among them Top Fuel driver Austin Prock. Force said he reduced his number of employees “from 100 to probably 50 – and I won’t go back to 100. I had to salvage my operation.” So he parked one car, and that left the 2019 NHRA rookie of the year without a ride. He isn’t without a job – he’s the supercharger specialist for Robert Hight’s Funny Car, working alongside crew chief dad Jimmy Prock. Austin Prock, the hard-charging 25-year-old racer who should be the face of drag racing’s future, is resigned for right now to his new role but told Competition Plus publisher Bobby Bennett this past weekend during testing, “It sucks not being able to race this year after sitting out last year, too, so to go another 12 months without getting that fix is going to hurt, but it will make me stronger, and I'll be back out there one day.” He said he’ll be “back on the money hustle.” Through the persuasive effort of legend Don Prudhomme, Prock brought multi-company owner Frank Tiegs to John Force Racing, but that sponsorship has transferred to Brittany Force’s dragster.
“Frank Tiegs owns those companies. We made a decision – he did – where we were going to go this year until we knew where the sport was going,” Force said. “So we decided to focus on one car instead of two of them, and that’s how that changed. But I want to grow that business back. They’re still with me. Montana Brand’s still on my other car. We’re going to build those brands back. I lost one car, but I’m going to find a way to bring that back – but I can’t guarantee that. I can’t put a timetable on that. I’d be lyin’ if I did that. I had a sponsorship for me. I couldn’t give it to another driver. If the Prock kid has to take a job, my heart’s with him. I’ll help him any way I can. I am going to keep him licensed. I’m going to keep him in the seat, because if anybody’s hurt, he’d go in a car right now. He can drive Top Fuel or Funny Car. My priority now is my three teams, to take care of majors that are paying for those teams, and all the sponsors.”
Austin Prock kept busy during the winter, working for bo-mar Industries, a fabrication/engineering company in Indianapolis, in the interim. Company owners Bob and Mark Buchanan are race fans with some of motorsports’ titans as their clients, and Prock (who wasn’t thrilled about working outside sometimes in the bitter-cold Indiana winter weather) said, “They gave me an opportunity to survive, so you’ve got to be thankful for that.”
As for Force, he has learned to diversify. He has made parts for Wayne Taylor Racing, which is headquartered across the street from John Force Racing’s (JFR’s) mammoth presence at Brownsburg, Ind. And he has struck a relationship with American Ultraviolet, a company based up Interstate 65 at Lebanon, Ind., that manufactures germicidal fixtures for the health-care. HVAC, and food and beverage industries. JFR produces some parts for the company’s machinery. In turn, American Ultraviolet has hired some of the JFR part-time workers also on a part-time basis. Force said he plans to market his machine, chassis, and paint shops’ capabilities to the IndyCar and NASCAR markets, too. “I’m rethinking John Force Racing,” he said, adding that he “might end up with [only] two cars one day.”
But the 16-time champion and 151-race winner hasn’t lost sight of his racing goals. He said, “I live it. I don’t want to retire. And I’m going to find a way to win. I got to change it, but I’m not going to give up winning or there’s no reason to go racin’. If you can’t have the dream, don’t do it. Don’t mean you’ve got to win, but you’ve got to have the dream. The one thing I told my sponsors is if I’m going to go back – I’ve made cuts everywhere to make it work – but if I have to cut the shot at winning, then I’m not going to go back.”
Force said, “I’m not going to retire. “I know that I will retire one day, but the sponsors want to keep me in the sport. And I want to stay in the sport and help the sport. I owe this sport. I don’t want to quit racin’, even if it’s not full time. I’ve already had offers to go back and drive for teams that I was with years ago, sponsors that I was with years ago, that go way back in my history, 40 years. That’s a lot of sponsors. I can go back and drive for them, even if it’s only part-time. I don’t want to get out of the seat. But – how long will I drive professionally? I don’t know, but that door is open to me now.
“My heart’s in it,” he said. “I’m going to stay in this thing, and when I can’t drive I’ll find other things to do, running this company.”
He said he was “embarrassed that I wasn’t out there” from July to November, “but I couldn’t make it financially.” His team missed the final nine races of the 2020 season.
“You look at what you offer sponsors in a contract and you owe (them) to take care of them. And even though they’re sayin’, ‘Let’s go racin’, everything’ll be OK,’ you have to look at if it don’t go the way we’re hoping it goes and you don’t do them races, you’re going to owe this money back,” Force said, explaining his decision to sit out.
“I didn’t take a stimulus. I told the sponsors, ‘We need to talk about it.’ But a lot of them couldn’t activate. The crowds weren’t there. We knew that we were already missing races. And I said, ‘Other people are racing, but I’m afraid to breach the contract,’” Force said. “We all looked at it, and financially it only made sense to move it to next year (2021). I made the call, with help from Robert, but I made the call.”
TRIO OF 200s – Matt Smith and Hector Arana Jr. flirted with 200-mph speeds Friday. But in Saturday’s second overall qualifying session, Arana Jr. reached the plateau and shared the honors with No. 1 qualifier Angelle Sampey and Angie Smith, Matt’s wife.
Angie Smith scored the first 200-mph pass in the early Saturday session with a 200.47-mph clocking. Arana Jr. followed at 200.20, and Sampey capped the session with her 6.742-second, 200.00-mph run that held up as low-qualifier status.
“All the guys at Vance & Hines this summer . . . they worked countless hours to get this bike ready for me,” Sampey said as she accepted the ceremonial oversized sign welcoming her to the 200-mph Club. “A thrilling couple of days, but as you can see I'm getting the hang of it: 200 miles, and it was definitely something Andrew wanted. This is his 200 mph, not mine. Me and Eddie did this. I'm just a lucky girl who gets to sit on top of the motorcycle. I can't thank you enough, Andrew, Eddie, Scott, Ray, everybody at Vance & Hines. This is yours, not mine – yours. I was just a lucky rider.”
TOUGH WELCOME BACK FOR THE SALINAS FAMILY – Mike Salinas isn’t kidding around. Even when he was just getting his feet wet in the Top Fuel pool and few knew who he was, the San Jose, Calif., businessman would speak politely and respectfully if he had to talk at all. He’d concentrate on the conversation, but his surface-to-surface missile-like eye contact signaled that he was ready any second to get back to the comfort of and the demands of his dragster. From the beginning, he hired the right tuning consultant, made sure his team knew what to do, and acquired the best parts.
People know who Mike Salinas is now, all right. And he still is intense, still driven to be the best. And as he made his comeback to the sport after more than a year, at preseason testing last weekend at West Palm Beach, Fla., he was just 14-thousandths of a second from being the absolute best among the elite racers on the property at Jupiter, Fla. He surely had that burning desire to grab the No. 1 qualifying position this weekend. But Saturday, all that vanished for him. All that mattered was that his daughter Jasmine was safe.
Top Alcohol Dragster racer Jasmine Salinas was taken to a Gainesville, Fla., hospital Saturday morning for further evaluation after she took a frightening flight over the left guard wall during her third and final qualifying pass.
Amazingly, she sent word from the hospital that she had “a few bruises here and there but feel fine otherwise.” And before the day was finished, she was standing at the starting line back at the racetrack, watching her sister Jianna and their father in their quests to qualify.
Track workers reported immediately via radio and the NHRA later confirmed that Salinas, 29, had crawled from her heavily damaged race car on her own power. She was evaluated by emergency medical personnel on-site before being transported to nearby UF Health Shands Trauma Center at Gainesville.
The NHRA issued a statement that said Salinas’ “dragster stood up and blew over before coming to a stop” in the class’ final pairing of the session.
Scrappers Racing team public-relations representative Melanie Johnson said in a prepared statement that Salinas “shook the tires early in the run, let the car calm down, and attempted to pedal [feather the throttle, trying to regain traction]. As she got back on the throttle, the front wheels lifted and surpassed the strength of the wheelie bar. The car went completely airborne and settled on the embankment outside of the guard wall on the left side of the track.
“Moments later,” Johnson said, “Salinas exited the car under her own power and spoke to the NHRA Safety Safari members that were first to the scene.”
Salinas sent word to her team from the hospital: “I will be out of here as soon as possible. I have a few bruises here and there but feel fine otherwise.”
What was foremost on her mind was returning to the racetrack to support her family. Jianna Salinas also escaped serious injury in 2019 after she tumbled from her bike near the end of her high-speed run during eliminations at Joliet, Ill.
The clocking system, as expected, gave Jasmine Salinas no time for her ill-fated pass but listed her as No. 2 in the order with a 5.177-second elapsed time at 279.50 mph from Friday. She will not race Sunday.
Neither will her sister, who missed the Pro Stock Motorcycle cut.
But Mike Salinas took the No. 7 starting spot in Top Fuel and will meet No. 10 Antron Brown in the opening round of runoffs.
HEAD, ALEXANDER WORK WELL TOGETHER – Funny Car team owner Jim Head is a busy man. He can’t be expected to remember every encounter with folks he sees at the drag races. His driver, Blake Alexander, found that out firsthand.
“I actually met Jim a long time ago, and we've always kind of like not known each other but we are in the same place at the same time and drag racing is really small. But my wife and I actually in, like, 2010, [when he was about 21 years old], maybe it was earlier. I walked into his lounge, and his back was hurting,” Alexander said. “He was looking for someone to drive the car. The very next year he kept driving for a little while, and I told him, ‘I want to drive your car,’ and I said, ‘This is my girlfriend, Leah, and we want to work with you.’ He said, ‘Get out of here.’
“Nah, he didn't say ‘Get out of here.’ He just said that he was not looking for a driver – he was ‘looking for a business partner’ – verbatim - is what he told me. And here we are now. It was interesting when he called me a couple years ago to drive this car. I reminded him of that [conversation], and he had no idea that happened. We laugh about it now,” Alexander said.
Actually, Head had mentioned to Alexander that someday maybe they would work together. By then Alexander owned his own team and said he “didn't really think anything of it.” But then toward the end of that year, he began to change his mind. “I thought maybe it could be the right thing to do to just lower the risk of my career by teaming up with someone. Every single time I've ever driven, I had to scratch and claw and fight to show up – and I still do now . . . I don't have a family that supports [financially] me doing this – but when he and I work together it makes those it easier on me.”
Actually, that was Head’s goal, too. He was looking for, someone to help make things easier on him.
“That's why it works so well,” Alexander said. “I kind of still do exactly what I've been doing, and he does exactly what he's been doing. But we have a partnership that works really well for us on many different angles, and our team works well together and a lot of the pieces were already in place, but I’ve just kind of slid in and done my job. So it’s come full circle.”
“Everything is going well,” the 32-year-old racer (who, like Head, has driven in both nitro classes) said. “We’re all happy. We’re always looking to get the car to run a little bit better. We're also trying new things all the time, and the car has a lot of different things on it that a lot of fuel cars don't have. That sometimes is a challenge. But it’s a really nice race car, and it's really fun working with Jim and Dave Leahy [of Electrimotion] and getting the chance to learn from different people. I’ve raced with a ton of different people and this is my 10th year doing this. These guys are actually the most experienced. Everyone does it differently, and it’s cool to learn from them.”
Head is known as an innovator, a D.I.Y. kind of guy.
“He's an innovative person,” Alexander said. “There’s still small things that we can try to do. And what I like about him is he doesn't just stop trying it. Sometimes you’ll just sit in the lounge and talk with people about ideas you have with your race car but they never come to fruition. But he has the know-how and the means to make it happen.”
He said he and the team “won't run the full season. When there's four or five races in a row we'll do that at the end of the year like Jim always does but there are periods in time where we don't have any obligation to go to every race in the world.”
Alexander never has had the luxury of completing a full season. The most events he has entered in a single season, he guessed, is about a dozen. Nevertheless, he said, “I feel fortunate to be in this situation.”
And he said he feels fortunate to have had a longer offseason. He and Leah welcomed a baby son, James, last September – the week of the rescheduled 2020 Gatornationals.
“I was gone for six of seven weeks of the beginning of his life. So I enjoyed it [the extra month]. He was born the week of Gainesville, and we were gone two weeks. I was home for, like, two days with them in the hospital two days and home for two days and then went to Gainesville. Then I went to St. Louis and I was doing all this work there, so I was gone for like 10 days or whatever. I had pre-event stuff I was doing with Pronto, and then I stayed after testing. Then we had a week off and then we had the last four or five races of the year. So it was nice for me to be home with my child and be a dad.”
His son’s name is James. And the proud new dad quickly clarified one thing: “No, I did not name him after Jim Head. It was more after the Bible character.”
CAMPBELL COUNTS HIS GOOD NEWS – Jim Campbell has brand-new DiPinto Logistics Dodge Charger Funny Car – and a renewed energy for drag racing. Changes to the clutch and fuel systems, he said, “allows us to think that we will be having a more competitive year. With all of [team owner] Big Jim Dunn’s experience and the experience my team brings, how can we go wrong? I mean, Jim Dunn is a legend. All we need is the car to back that up. Along with hard work during the off-season and those years of experience, we expect great things.”
A couple more factors here at the Gatornationals have Campbell excited. “As we get back to the track this year, it is exciting to be doing at least three qualifying sessions again [at most races], and we are all looking forward to having more and more fans back at the track. I have a positive focus on both the team and myself that we are going to do the best we can do this year,” he said.
“I always start the season with an extremely positive attitude, as does our entire team,” the always cheerful Campbell said. “Once I stomp the throttle of that Funny Car, anything can happen. And we expect good things this year to make up for all the hard work during the off-season. Having a great positive mental attitude and focus going into the 2021 season is what is going to make the difference.”
Away from the racetrack, Campbell has reason to be joyful. “I am excited to have a new relationship in my life,” he said, alluding to girlfriend Jennifer, “and we are both excited that business is picking back up and that we are finally getting past this pandemic that has affected so many lives personally and professionally.”
However, like drag-racing fans coast to coast, Campbell will miss having Jack Beckman in the Funny Car mix this year. He and Beckman had a standing “guys’ night out” every week, and at the track the two occasionally raced against each other. But funding went away for the Infinite Hero Dodge at Don Schumacher Racing, and Beckman is back at his elevator company job.
“I did see Jack a few times [recently], and I have always appreciated all his advice and guidance through the years,” Campbell said of his movies and surfing pal. “I know he is working hard to provide for his family, but I will miss him being around this year. I did not get to spend as much time with him and his family as I would like to have this offseason, due to COVID. But I’m sure we will remain great friends as we move forward in our lives. We may not be driving together this year, but no doubt you can catch us catching some waves soon.”
PEDREGON EXPECTS TO BE ONE ‘GATO MALO’ – Cruz Pedregon will begin his 30th year of professional competition with a first-round race Sunday against Chad Green. The longtime privateer in the Snap-on Dodge is celebrating the milestone with a rebuilt Funny Car he has tagged “Gato Malo” (“bad cat” in Spanish) and a well-seasoned John Collins-, Rip Reynolds-led crew who helped keep Tommy Johnson Jr. at the top of the class leaderboard for the past few years. He invested in the equipment from Don Schumacher Racing that Collins and crew used to produce a second-place finish in the standings. And he even sports a new “Makers and Fixers” paint scheme that honors his loyal sponsor.
And Pedregon is so giddy about his chances to earn a third series championship that he said he doesn’t even mind stepping aside from tuning duties and being relegated to parachute packer again.
"Our eyes are on the prize of being a top contender this year," he said. "There's so much energy that comes with a new season, especially with the good news of Collins coming on board and the renewal of our contract with long-time primary sponsor Snap-on. That energy has translated into a lot of long days for the team working on this stripped-down, rebuilt Dodge Funny Car. As an owner, I'm doing everything I can to provide all the tools they need for us to consistently be in the late rounds and win our share of races this year."
“We have lofty goals for the year, but it will take a few races to get into the groove," Pedregon said. "With a top-notch crew, great parts, and respected sponsors, we expect to be in the winners circle multiple times. We’re going to have a hell of a year. "
FOLEY FIELDS IMPROVED TEAM WITH NEW SPONSORS – With a lot of new components to his team, including parts and personnel, Doug Foley is back at Gainesville Raceway, where last September at the rescheduled Gatornationals he advanced to the quarterfinals for the first time since his nine-year absence. Foley said he believes his Foley & Lewis Racing entry – after many parts, pieces, and personal changes during the long offseason – will certainly take him deeper into eliminations this year. He said, “If this car runs to its capabilities, we feel like this thing could easily be a contender.” He spent two days of testing, making multiple runs each day. His primary sponsor this season is A & A Elevated Facility Solutions, which began as a minority-owned, two-person commercial janitorial business in New York in 1973 and has expanded throughout the U.S. and today also implements innovations to provide clean, healthy workspaces. Another new sponsor is Vita C Shot.
‘WAIT ON THE TREE!’ – Young Pro Stock racer Mason McGaha kind of shrugged that nonchalant shrug of a teenager who’s not crazy about talking a lot and answering a bunch of questions.
But the third-generation driver said, “I guess it was just a mental thing,’ this difficulty in mastering reaction times when he was first behind the wheel of his dad’s second race car.
But his dad, Chris McGaha, had plenty to say about it.
“He wouldn’t wait on the Christmas Tree. He was doing the motions right. He knew what he was supposed to do. But he would not wait for the Christmas Tree to come down. So that was a major task for him to overcome,” McGaha the Elder said.
The Odessa, Texas, duo had worked on it in Florida and in Arizona, but the newcomer couldn’t get the hang of it. They decided to try it again at their local racetrack, Penwell Knights. And the comfort of home didn’t seem to make any difference. During a particularly exasperating test session, Chris McGaha said, “I took my radio off, and I opened the door. And I told him, ‘I don’t care if you can run a 6.49 [-second elapsed time], I’m going to kick your ass every day if you ain’t going to wait on the Tree.’ I said, ‘Do it again,’ and I slammed the door. He drilled his son over and over, and he finally improved by two-tenths of a second.”
Mason McGaha said, “For some reason, I just couldn’t wait on it, and every time we’d go up there . . . total screw-up. I had to go up there and keep programming it in my brain: You’re supposed to wait. That took a long time to finally get that figured out.”
His dad figured out that he might have discovered a new career for himself after enlisting Pete Smallwood’s help as Mason’s crew chief.
“It’s probably best I got rid of my headset duties. When it comes to racing, I wear my emotions on my shoulders. And there’s a few times here lately that if I had a headset when he was up there [on the starting line], I would have smashed it against the guardrail [in anger] at things that were going on. And it’s nothing that he was doing. It was just the way the car was running. So if I become a crew chief,” Chris McGaha said, “it’s going to be like a rock star smashing a guitar. I’m going to be throwing a headset, because I can’t control my emotions at that instant. And it’s not that I’m doing that intentionally. I truly can’t control my emotions up there.”
Despite the rocky relationship with the Christmas Tree at the beginning, Mason McGaha still calls his crew “The A-Team.” Chris McGaha calls their side of the operation simply “the blue car.” Just the same, Chris McGaha said his primary goal this season is “to get that [blue] car up and running. I’m pushing that team. At some point, I’ll be the guy who runs block. Hopefully I can get both cars fast and I can run block and he can do whatever he needs to do to win.”
GLENN GETS HIS CHANCE – Dallas Glenn has been a successful sportsman racer and a clutch specialist, but what he said he has been itching to do is race in the Pro Stock class.
“I’ve been waiting to make my NHRA Pro Stock debut since I was a little kid,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to race Pro Stock. I can’t wait to stage up my RAD Torque Systems / Silverstate Camaro for the first time and let all these guys and gals have it!”
He qualified 12th and earned a first-round date in the opening round of eliminations Sunday to line up against Kyle Koretsky – the second-year racer he’ll be managing the clutch system for when he isn’t competing himself.
Glenn and Top Fuel rookies Mike Bucher and Josh Hart qualified in their debuts, but Krista Baldwin came up short with her dragster Saturday, as did Pablo Gonzalez in Pro Stock Motorcycle and John Callahan in Pro Stock.
“RAD Torque Systems and Silver State Plumbing have really made this Pro Stock dream a reality for me,” Glenn said. “When Jason [Line] and Bo [Butner] stepped away from driving last year, there was a car available. RAD Torque Systems and Silver State Plumbing stepped up, and it was a no-brainer.”
Glenn, 30, who lives at Mooresville, N.C., has made a name for himself at the sportsman level with a top-10 finish in Stock Eliminator’s national points in 2009 and a Super Gas victory at the spring Las Vegas national event in 2010. More recently, he pulled off an impressive double-up in Top and Mod at the IHRA Summit Sportsman Spectacular at Darlington Dragway in 2019.
Glenn said he plans to enter four races in 2021 to get his feet wet in the category but is open to competing in more races if additional funding comes along.
FRIDAY - GONZALEZ RACES AS TRIBUTE TO GANN, HIS OWN FATHER; BALDWIN MAKES LONG-AWAITED DEBUT IN GRANDPA’S DRAGSTER, HART IMPRESSES IN FIRST TOP FUEL RUN, PRO STOCK’S ‘ERA OF ERICA’ IN FULL SWING
IN TRIBUTE - Pablo González Matos had one drag bike, and he raced it to six national championships in Puerto Rico. But when his son Pablo showed a real interest in following in his father’s treadmarks, Dad quit to throw his resources into his 16-year-old’s program. It was a smart move, for Pablo González went on to match his father in Puerto Rican motorcycle titles.
That was 24 years ago, and Friday at Gainesville Raceway, at the start of pro qualifying for the NHRA season-opening Amalie Oil Gatornationals, Pablo González Matos’ son was paying him back, paying tribute to his sacrifice.
The younger González, a Southeastern Drag Bike Association 6.0 Index bracket-racing champion who lives a couple of hours away at Orlando, made his debut in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class, riding Blake Gann’s EBR V-twin that honored yet some else who helped his career flourish. González’s bike was one that his longtime friend Shawn Gann used to compete in what’s known today as the Camping World Drag Racing Series.
The popular, flamboyant, and friendly Shawn Gann passed away suddenly last May. But this remembrance has brought his and González’s relationship full circle. This was the race at which the González family met the Ganns, exactly 30 years ago.
“The Gatornationals is the race that all Puerto Ricans like to come to see, because it’s the closest one and is cheaper in expenses overall,” González said. “My first Gatornationals was 1991 that my dad brought me when I was 10 years old. Then we came year after year to see what we loved. But in 2006, we were walking, as every year, looking all the Pro Stock Bikes, but fortunately Shawn was out and he started to talk to me like he knew me before. But no, he just was good as always. Then I told him that I was a drag bike racer from Puerto Rico and a champion. So he said, ‘Why you don’t race Pro Stock?’ I said, ‘Because of the money.’ He asked me what bike I had and I said I have two chassis but not the engine. He spoke to his dad and they offered me to lease an engine. That same weekend we were talking like friends.
“After that race I did everything I could and sent the chassis to his shop. I went to his shop, stayed in there. They treated me as a family member,” he said.” He ended up staying with the Ganns in North Carolina for two weeks. “We went Route 66 and Englishtown,” he said, “After that, we continued a very solid friendship all these years. Last year, unfortunately, Shawn took the wrong decision and left an empty space in our environment. So sad.
“I went to his funeral, and at the end of the night when I told Blake and Lisa that I was leaving for Florida, Blake said, “Pablo, you know you have a family here and you can come whenever you want. So, I was doing a racing trip with my family. My third race of that trip was in Rockingham, N.C. So I decided to stop at Blake’s [in Stoneville] and spent few days there. He told me that two people were looking to lease the bikes and he asked me if I was able to go to the Gatornationals last year to help him. He told me that he was good enough to come back to races. I said, ‘You have a friend here, I will go there and help you.’ At the end of the race he told me, ‘Pablo, I want you to race Shawn’s bike at the Gatornationals 2021.”
(David Barron and Chris Bostick honored Shawn Gann last September at the Gatornationals, as well.)
For now, González expects to race Gann’s bike for just this one event. It’s uncertain whether he’ll have the chance to race the bike again soon in NHRA competition.
“We don’t know yet,” Blake Gann said. “He wanted to race, and I was glad to help him out. He seems like he’s really interested. He and Shawn were good friends for years. Lance Bonham was going to ride one of the Buells, and I was already going to be there. Pablo has always wanted to race so bad. I said, ‘Man, I’ll already be there. I’ll fix you up a motorcycle. Come on and have a good time!’ He’s never ridden a Pro Stock [motorcycle], but I think he’ll be fine. We’ll have a good time, and it’ll definitely be a good race for him. He said he has known González “about 12-14 years, something like that. He comes to see us every once in a while. He’s a really nice guy. He’s always wanted to ride a Pro Stock, so now’s a good time. Why not?”
González said, “Blake was so happy about everything I’ve done in the USA. Everything with my own bikes and budget. He’s really proud.” However, he said, “This is one race only. It’s a one-time opportunity. It’s a dream for me. But unfortunately, there’s no budget to continue. This is really expensive. It will be huge for me if I can get a sponsor to make more races. I spoke to Blake, and he’s willing to continue if someone can get on board. I’ll do my best, as always. I’m a professional racer, and I’m taking this seriously. I went to the Ganns’ house last weekend and spent a few days in there, helping and planning.
“Let me tell you!! Pro Stock Motorcycle is the dream of any drag bike bracket racer. I’m representing the drag bike bracket racing community. God selected me to be there for a purpose. Many racers of the drag bike bracket racing community, including Puerto Rico, are going to travel only to support me. They have sent me messages and pictures with flight itineraries. This is so special and means a lot to me. I’m speechless,” González said.
He said the bike needed a few updates to make it competitive, “but my mission is to make the field.” Running alongside Jianna Salinas, who races with her Top Fuel driver-team owner father Mike Salinas, González got on the board with a 9.550-second elapsed time at 89.30 mph. That left him 18th in the order, but he has two more chances Saturday to improve for one of the 16-bike slots for Sunday eliminations.
Naturally, he wanted to make a strong showing for the Gann family, Shawn’s memory, and for his own sense of pride. But watching on Friday just steps away was Pablo González Matos, who had arrived from Puerto Rico a week ago. And the son was just as passionate about taking his father down the quarter-mile with him in spirit.
“He’s with me since Day 1 of this,” González said. “I don’t want to lose anything. This is his dream. I’m doing the sport he loves. Everything I know I owe to him.”
Shawn Gann had loved his father, too. When he won at Denver a few years ago, He bragged about his dad, “My daddy can build anything. He can build an engine. He can build a bike. My daddy can build a volcano! Yes, he can.” And Blake Gann loved the sport and loved living it with Shawn. “I miss him a lot,” Blake said.
So this tale of two father-son combos continues to be woven into Gatornationals lore.
BALDWIN AMPED – AND PREPARED – FOR HER DEBUT – Somehow, they all converged on the same little Hoosier burg. Jeff Gordon spent his formative years before rising to elite NASCAR status in the same little town of Pittsboro, where three-time NHRA Top Fuel champion and New Jersey native Antron Brown has made his home. Like Gordon, Krista Baldwin relocated to Indiana from California (she from suburban Los Angeles, he from the Bay Area near San Francisco).
And there as the stars twinkle above this unlikely haven for race-car champions, Baldwin lies in bed and has her dreams of following in the footsteps of her maternal grandfather and her late father. “I’m still staring at the ceiling in bed at night because I’m so excited,” the 27-year-old experienced sportsman racer said in anticipation of her professional debut this weekend at the Gatornationals. “It’s going to be a lot, but I’m SO ready for it.”
Well, “it” is here. With what she described as “a healthy mix of excitement and nervousness,” Baldwin is making her Top Fuel debut this weekend at storied Gainesville Raceway, driving the car that has been the pride and joy of her equally storied and somewhat mysterious 88-90-ish legendary grandpa Chris “The Golden Greek” Karamesines. And she said she knows her father, Bobby Baldwin, is with her in spirit. He raced a Top Fuel dragster from the late 1980s to 2001 but passed away in Sept. 2001 after suffering a brain aneurysm. He owned his operation and, his daughter said, “He never let the trials and tribulations of high-dollar drag racing get in the way of having fun and being with his friends and family at the track. He would say, ‘I’m here for a good time, not a long time.’
“Some days I wish my life were different and that my dad was still here. But this is how life dealt me my cards, and I’m going to make the absolute best of it. I know that he’s watching and I know that I’m doing something that he loved and he would be supportive of. He even raced with my grandpa a few times and it will be very full circle when I jump in the car.”
To honor her father, Baldwin has taken his old Top Fuel competition number, T/F 725.
So without having participated in the PRO-sponsored preseason testing last weekend downstate at Jupiter and not having driven the car since she completed her licensing runs last October, Baldwin is jumping into the Top Fuel pool. She’s fully aware that she’s competing with seasoned competitors and a few – such as Brittany Force, Mike Salinas, and Scott Palmer – who are beyond ready to return after a year’s absence. However, she has the backing of Lucas Oil, Strange Engineering, Composite Specialties, and Eat Sleep Race, along with that one extra-special supporter: McLeod Racing. Baldwin is the Creative Director of McLeod Racing and FTI Performance, as well as a general manager for McLeod and FTI owner Paul Lee’s Funny Car team.
“I'm happy to see Krista fulfilling her dreams of driving Top Fuel, following in her dad's and granddad's footsteps,” Lee, her friend and mentor, said. “She's worked extremely hard in making this dream come true. She lives and breathes drag racing, and that's what it takes to be successful. Whether it's her job at McLeod and FTI, or managing my Funny Car team, she gives it 100 percent. She excels in all her positions, and she is part of our family. Since we are a family-oriented business and race team, we love helping her pursue her dreams.”
Baldwin said, “Paul and I have a plan for this weekend. I have relinquished my duties last week during testing so the crew can practice running without me. And it worked great! I have Ashley Oberhofer stepping in my place for the weekend for the social media and the general-manager duties. At Paul’s suggestion, I needed to be fully involved with what I’m doing on the Top Fuel side, and I’m very grateful that he understands my position.”
She has inherited not only Karamesines’ black-and-gold canopy dragster but also his crew, adding renowned A/Fuel Dragster crew chief Anthony Dicero and Jake Sanders. Brothers Bobby and Dom Lagana, who work for Torrence Racing but are celebrated especially for helping newcomers to the fuel ranks, are serving as consultants. They graciously lent their expertise last year with inspecting the car with a fine-tooth comb to ensure that Karamesines would have an effortless final few races and to make sure the car was suitable for Baldwin.
“I can’t thank Bobby and Dom enough for all that they have done and all that they continue to do for me and my grandpa,” Baldwin said. “It’s a real honor for them to take the time and help tune the car so we can make clean, fast passes. I owe these guys a lot, and I hope I can make them proud. Some of the best advice I received was from Dom Lagana. He said to cherish every second with my grandpa and live for the experience.”
She said her goal for this weekend is “to have clean, fast passes. I need more seat time in the Top Fuel car, and my goal is to guide the car straight down the track and to make it to the finish line. I hope to run in the 3.90s and just to enjoy the complete ride of the weekend.”
Here from his home at Atlanta to cheer on Baldwin and Josh Hart was former Top Fuel racer Jordan Vandergriff.
Baldwin opened her pro career with a 5.343-second clocking with a 125.74-mph speed. With a nod to her grandfather, who had been watching her performance from the tower, she said, “I’m so blessed to be here, so excited to carry on this generation of my family. Hopefully tomorrow we’ll have a better outing.”
Baldwin began racing at age 18 in a front-engine dragster in the Nostalgia Eliminator 1 class. She upgraded her license to a nitro injected A/Fuel dragster in 2015, and for the past 5 years, she has campaigned her McLeod Racing Dragster in the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series with Dicero.
“Making the transition to Top Fuel challenged me in ways that I never thought it could,” Baldwin said. “It showed me to be resilient and to stay true to who I am and what I want to do. Top Fuel is the dream, and I’ve worked tirelessly for years to get to this point. And I’m so proud that I get to race with my grandpa. Before ever even getting to the staging lanes at Gainesville Raceway, she said, “I will admit I’m pretty nervous, but I know when the engine fires up and they close that canopy that I’ll be ready for it.”
With Baldwin’s presence, the Top Fuel field will have three women competitors – including Leah Pruett and Brittany Force – for the first time since 2018. Three years ago, the combo was Pruett, Force, and Audrey Worm.
LOW-KEY KALITTA EAGER TO START – Doug Kalitta really hasn’t been caught up with the milestones that lie before him. Instead, the Mac Tools Dragster driver reacted more to the oddity of the season starting not in February but in March and not at Pomona, Calif., but at Gainesville, Fla.
“Isn’t that the craziest thing?” the veteran Top Fuel racer and owner of Kalitta Charters airline said. “I hope it’s the last time we have to do that. It is what it is, and everyone’s had to deal with it. We have enough going on with the airlines stuff that we were able to keep everyone on staff. We got through it.”
Kalitta has won the past three season-opening races, but they’ve been on the West Coast, the Winternationals. Now everyone’s thoughts are turning to spring, and the NHRA is celebrating its 70th birthday and starting the party on the East Coast because of public-health restrictions in California. But Kalitta has won plenty at Gainesville, too. He’s a three-time winner at the Gatornationals, though not since 2014. (He also won in 2000 and 2005.) Some might say the odds are on Kalitta Motorsports’ side: Kalitta’s since-departed teammate Richie Crampton won two of the past three Gatornationals.
“I love running Gainesville. I’ve always been a big Don Garlits fan, and that’s his home [nearby Ocala]. To be able to go there and start the season with a win would be huge for us,” he said. “I feel confident that we can do it. The car has been testing well and was running well at the end of last year. We’ve had more time than we ever wanted to get the season started, so we’re ready to get the 2021 season going.”
If Kalitta does win a fourth Gatornationals trophy, it will be his 50th victory. Already among the top five winners in the all-time Top Fuel list, he is poised to become just the fifth Top Fuel racer and the 14th in all of the NHRA pro classes throughout the past 70 years to reach the 50-victory plateau. What weighs on his mind more is the fact he once again is in a strong position to earn that elusive championship – probably because the media keep bringing it up. But it’s a fact Kalitta has been series runner-up five times, including last season and the one before.
“On my car, we’ve been able to keep the core group together, and that’s a huge deal for me, in particular. I’m fortunate to have the guys on this Mac Tools team. We really didn’t have much turnover from last year. We had just one change and the person we brought in had been with us for three or four years previously” he said. “These guys are all super-hungry like I am. We’ve been second or third for the past few years. We’re bound and determined that one of these years we’re going to finish it off and get a championship. We just need to keep our heads down and make it happen.”
Kalitta was runner-up last year and has placed second five times altogether. He has finished in the top three in the standings four times in the past five years. That’s a statistic for which he’d prefer not to be consistent, but his Mac Tools sponsorship is into its second decade with the team.
“Mac Tools has been with us 20 years now,” Kalitta said. “They’re a strong group, and they love drag racing. We’re happy to have the opportunity to represent them. They’re a part of everything we do – not only in racing, but back at the shop and with the airplane. They’re not just a sponsor, but a true partner. Bob Lawson and everyone in our marketing program has put together a terrific group of sponsors. We’re fortunate to not only have Mac Tools behind us, but other sponsors like Toyota and TRD, Mobil 1, SealMaster, NGK Spark Plugs and Revchem. It’s really what Connie (Kalitta) has put into this car. It’s a great team effort.”
HART SET TO BE HIS OWN BOSS – Josh Hart finally got it done. He had planned to step up to the Top Fuel ranks a year ago, with Bob Vandergriff Racing. It was going to be perfect: Hart lives down the road at Ocala, and just as with every other class in which he has competed, he would make his first Top Fuel passes on home turf.
But with most of the pro and sportsman racers assembled at Gainesville Raceway last March, the NHRA joined every other sport in suspending its season. That offered both Hart and Vandergriff a chance to take a step back and reassess their program together. Their mutual decision was that Hart’s best bet would be to own his own team.
With funding from Burnyzz and Technet and accomplished tuner Ron Douglas as crew chief, Hart is seeing his dream become reality. Before the opening qualifying session Friday, Hart said the experience would “be pretty surreal,” because “I never thought I was going to be here. You hear all the rumors about money, sponsors . . . For the stars to align enough for me to be able to do this, it’s an honor.”
Veteran tuner Ron Douglas, who has more than two decades of experience working for drag-racing teams, will lead the crew.
“He’s been amazing to work with,” Hart said. “He knows how to get the car down the track 99 percent of the time. You have confidence sitting in the car that it’s going to go A to B. He also doesn’t blow a lot of stuff up. I think I made the right choice. I don’t have to worry about the equipment with Ron. The team knows what to do. They’ve done a great job.”
Hart said he wasn’t nervous about his first Top Fuel appearance but did say, “I’m nervous about getting more laps under my belt. I’m nervous about getting more comfortable in the car. I’m pretty comfortable, but there’s no price for the experience. Around Atlanta or Charlotte, you’ll start to see my reaction times on point and things starting to come together. Right now, everything is new, and I’m just trying to get settled.”
He did make several practice passes Tuesday to prepare for the Gatornationals. But he might not be as prepared for the flood of ticket requests and his own growing local cheering section. “I’m sure a lot of people will be there,” he said. “That’s piling on the pressure.”
One thing that eased his concerns is Krista Baldwin’s pro debut here this weekend, as well. “That’s pretty cool,” he said. “It’s nice to have new people coming into the sport. The more independent people will only help this sport grow. It’s going to be tough competing against the multi-car teams. I’m trying to build an equal model to Capco (Steve Torrence/Billy Torrence). I have a lot of admiration for those guys. They have a strong business. They do not have to worry about sponsors. They have a strong family, and they have a badass race team.”
So does Hart. In his first trip down the 1,000-foot course, he impressed with a 3.768-second elapsed time at 322.44 mph.
MULTI-TASKING MORRISON BUSY – After limited participation in 2020, Joe Morrison is back in the Top Fuel class for his full rookie season behind the wheel of the Leverich Racing entry for anywhere between 10 and 12 events. Moreover, he’ll have a new clutch, fresh custom paint job (changed from flat-black to a two-tone blue design), several new marketing partners, and tuning assistance from Kalitta Motorsports crew chief Rob Flynn.
During the off-season, the team reached out to Flynn, tuner of Doug Kalitta’s Mac Tools Dragster, for technical assistance. Flynn spent several hours speaking with team owner Gary Leverich last year and suggested the team should swap out their antiquated clutch system with a newer five-disc unit. The team also had Rob Wendland, who brought Terry McMillen up to speed in the past few years, improve their fuel pump. Flynn has offered to help the Leverich team develop a baseline tune-up, a key element in being able to elevate the team’s performance.
“I’ve been fortunate to have developed a strong relationship with Rob Flynn and the Kalitta Motorsports team over the past 10-years, and I can’t thank Rob and The Radman enough for offering to help us turn the corner in 2021,” Morrison said. “As a driver, I appreciated the opportunity to learn how to pedal a 11,000-horsepower Top Fuel Dragster last year, but – it’ll be cool to experience more honest-to-God full pulls. I believe with Rob’s tuning assistance, and Gary’s attention to detail – we’ll get this car going A to B and making representative runs for the fans.”
And Morrison announced that the Camping World Drag Racing Series will have another Force, another CForce, this year. CForce Bottling Company, a Texas-based bottled water company whose owners are Gena Norris and her husband, the legendary American martial artist, actor, director, and pop-culture icon, Chuck Norris. The partnership will run through the entire 2021 season. The associate marketing partnership is CForce’s first taste of drag racing. It partnered with the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series in recent years.
True to the Norris brand, the flavors available are Perfectly Plain, Ranger Raspberry, Steel Dragonfruit, and Legendary Lime as Morrison adds some CForces to his G-forces.
“When you think of the term ‘American Icon’, there are very few individuals who fit this description better than Chuck Norris,” Morrison said. “Our team is comprised of hard-working guys and gals, who require constant hydration while turning the wrenches on our 300-mph dragster. Thanks to the support of CForce Bottling Company, we’ll get the help we need to focus on our jobs, and steadily improve our performance in 2021.”
Morrison is doing more than bringing in other new sponsors, including AmericanaGlobal.com, SpeedPro, RACE Software, Specialized Auto Craft, and DymePSI – during what many would figure was an offseason with an unfavorable sponsorship-procurement climate. But Morrison also has retained existing marketing partners Best of Texas BBQ Sauce, Hi Tech Cam Inc., EJK Insurance Inc., Diversatech, Vintage 1320, Marks Mixers, and Superior Engine.
And that’s not all that the New Jersey racer has spent time doing. He not only has developed relationships with small businesses for his racing efforts, but he also has helped establish a financial and marketing program called #RacersToTheRescue. Its purpose is to support local businesses in each market the team competes in that were financially devastated because of pandemic-related restrictions. Meanwhile, the program can build brand equity and drive sales for the national partners who support the effort. #RacersToTheRescue also can connect the racing community with the local business scene to develop awareness for both. This weekend, the cause will support The Laurel Oak Inn Bed and Breakfast and BillyBobz BarBQ.
Morrison told Carlton Brooks, manager at BillyBobzBarBQ, “Small business is what provides employment for almost half of the workforce in this country. So it’s important that you guys know that there are people out there that do care and do appreciate you.” Billy Bobz BarBQ (352-505-3300, billybobzbbq.com) is open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. and serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Take-out is available through various delivery services.
On the racetrack, Morrison will be busy applying fresh information to what he learned last season. And a sound night’s sleep at The Laurel Oak Inn followed by a juicy slab of ribs or some brisket for lunch certainly couldn’t hurt.
FEELING FATHERLY – Shawn Langdon isn’t a dad, but he discovered he has those fatherly instincts. During the longer-than-usual offseason, the driver of Kalitta Motorsports’ DHL Toyota Dragster stayed busy, working on his bracket cars – and prepping his nephew Caden’s Jr. Dragster. So he was able to get away from his colder Indiana house and spend some time back in his Southern California.
“It’s pretty funny . . . I look back throughout all the years, and I always say I wish I knew then what I know now in learning things,” Langdon said. “Along the way, I always had people I could rely on. I think the most gratifying thing in working with Caden is when he comes to me and has questions and I give him my best advice of things I’ve learned throughout the years. He sits there and listens, and you can see it soak in. And then he goes out and applies it on the racetrack. Then you see the benefits on the track and he comes back with a smile on his face, happy that he did a good job. He did it and gets all the credit, but just knowing that I contributed a little bit to that is a very different experience.
“He was very fortunate. In just his second race in the car, he went out and won, and it was such a gratifying feeling. Standing on the starting line, I felt such a different wave of emotions than in winning a race myself,” he said.
“I feel like I’ve been lucky enough to win a lot of races inside the cockpit, where I really felt like I built up this type of wall, where I really don’t let nerves get to me or worry what other people were doing around me. Standing on the starting line in the final round with my nephew up there, I was so darn nervous I thought I was going to get sick right there,” Langdon said. “It was such a different feeling that I wasn’t accustomed to, but it was such a great feeling. I didn’t feel like I could get that in the race car. Just to see that win light come on and the smile on his face, I was so happy and proud of him to see what he was able to accomplish in such a short time. Just being there and maybe having a small part of it in giving him some advice that I learned throughout the years was very, very rewarding.”
This is the second season back in a Top Fuel dragster for 2013 Top Fuel champion Langdon, who tried his hand at Funny Cars and became only the 17th driver ever to win in both nitro classes. He said he’s ready to start trying to improve on his sixth-place finish in last November’s final standings. After two Funny Car victories, he’s looking for his 16th in Top Fuel. This time, the off-season wait was longer for everybody, and Langdson said for him, “It’s different. I kept busy the whole time and about everything I did was racing-related, so even though it may have actually been four months off, in my mind it wasn’t. I’d still be practicing on my practice tree and racing on my iRacing simulator. There’s still a lot of stuff I do seven days a week that’s racing-related.”
As for his 2021 outlook, Langdon said, “I’d like to pick up where we left off last year. We really started running a lot better towards the end of the year. [Crew chief] Kurt Elliott and Connie [tuner/team owner Kalitta] have done a great job of working on the car, tuning it and giving me a chance to win on Sunday. And that’s all I need. As long as I have a chance, I feel like I can keep us competitive with reaction times. I know that every one of these crew guys busted their butt all off-season, double and triple-checking everything making sure we are very prepared and ready to go. No matter what happens this year with the pandemic, I feel that we’re ready to run 24 races, test as much as we need to, and contend for a championship.”
His crew remains the same, except for one new member. “Our new team member is getting a crash course with us,” Langdon said, “but he came from one of the other teams out here, and I don’t have any doubt that he’s going to fit right in here and be up to the task. We have a great DHL Toyota team here with our leader, Connie Kalitta, who set a great precedent with the team last year, keeping everyone employed through the pandemic. Never cut anyone’s paycheck and kept everyone employed and really put the team first. He’s been involved in this sport so long. He’s put so much into this sport, but the sport has also given back to him. What he did last year with keeping everyone on staff, he definitely gave back everything and then some back into the sport. I’m just grateful to be working with a great man like Connie.”
PALMER PLANS WHIRLWIND TRIP – Scott Palmer competed at just three national events last season (at Phoenix in February, then at Dallas and Houston). This year, he’ll compete at three season-openers before March is over.
He’ll drive his Scott Palmer Racing/Tommy Thompson/Marck Recycling Dragster at the NHRA’s Gatornationals this weekend. Then he’ll head to Texas for two more races. First stop in the Lone Star State will be next weekend at Ferris’ Xtreme Raceway Park, where he’ll race Jon Stouffer’s ’71 ’Cuda and his own Alcohol Funny Car at the Mid-West Drag Racing Series kickoff. Palmer will complete his trip at Texas Motorplex, at Ennis, in first Funny Car Chaos race of the year that promoter Chris Graves is calling “the biggest Funny Car race of the century.” According to Graves, “64 Funny Cars of all shapes, colors and kinds, from coast to coast and everywhere in between, converge on the historic Texas Motorplex for . . . ‘run what ya brung, heads-up, gloves-off Funny Car drag racing.”
Palmer said, “The next few weeks will be war!” But he also said he’s jazzed after what he said was “the best offseason I personally have ever had.” He said crew members Bobby Cardoza, Rick Ducusin, Alex Stapleton, and Tim Young “have more pride in the team than I’ve seen in years. These have gone above and beyond to check , recheck, rebuild, build, clean, clean, clean, just because they are proud to be here. I can’t tell them how proud I am to be part of ‘their’ team. It blows my mind how committed they are.”
And Palmer barely could contain his excitement in saying earlier this week that Dom Lagana was at Gainesville. Lagana kindled a sense of almost fatherly pride in Palmer in 2017 by winning a 2017 race at Melbourne, Australia – “That’s our Dom,” Palmer said, beaming. Now Lagana, who works on Billy Torrence’s Top Fuel car and is helping Steve Torrence car chief brother Bobby Lagana with tuning advice for class rookie Krista Baldwin, is on the mend from a serious auto accident near Indianapolis. He was hospitalized for 103 days, many of those in a coma, and underwent the amputation of both legs.
“He’s 100 percent on Billy’s car, but he always helps me,” Palmer said. “He is the absolute most inspirational person ever. Dom is a miracle.”
McMILLEN’S CREW DISPERSES – It seems odd at the Amalie Oil Gatornationals not to see fan favorite Terry McMillen and his Amalie Oil Xtermigator Dragster. But pandemic-caused financial problems have put that marketing relationship on ice. And McMillen – the racer the crowd identified with Amalie Oil, the racer who twice won the fan-determined lottery to get into the Traxxas Nitro Shootout bonus race, the racer whose perseverance won hearts and berths in the Countdown to the Championship – isn’t racing this weekend at what has been his signature race.
But Terry McMillen’s loss is Clay Millican’s gain. The Parts Plus Dragster driver for Stringer Motorsports picked up clutch specialist Kaylynn Simmons from McMillen’s Amalie Oil Dragster team. And for this young lady fondly nicknamed “Bruce,” parting with crew chief Rob Wendland and her colleagues truly was such sweet sorrow.
She wrote on a social-media outlet, “Five years ago, straight out of college (literally by hours), I took a chance on drag racing. A team took a chance on me. Truth is I didn’t even know what a Top Fuel dragster was. I showed up as green as green could get. Seven races later, I was putting a clutch in the car. It wasn’t pretty. The rest of the season wasn’t pretty. I had a LOT to learn.
But you see, Rob Wendland is a baaaad dude. He took each one of us on the team and molded us into crew guys. He led us to great accomplishments. A couple wins (we won Indy), a No. 1 qualifier, many round wins, and he has shared such valuable knowledge with us. But most importantly he molded us into a family, a family that was entirely too hard to leave for ALL of us that had to go. But bills need to be paid and life must go on. Terry and [wife] Cori both have been the best to work for. To be there for so many of their firsts can only be described as a dream come true. And I am eternally grateful for the time we have had! Hoping to see you back on track real soon! Chris, Cody, Dwight, Jay, Josh, Jason, Ashley, the kiddos, extended racing family — you will ALWAYS be my family. The sass, the snacks, and all the ridiculousness you have dealt with from me, seriously thanks. We were a crew of misfits, but we were pretty bad-ass misfits. It breaks my heart. It’s probably the WORST breakup of my life. But the show must go on. I said as I left the shop that I couldn’t say goodbye because I would cry. And there is NO crying in drag racing. Instead I said, ‘See you later’ — because I just know we will get the band back together some day.”
Some of the band members have filled in the gaps at John Force Racing, and Force said he was impressed with the work ethic these relatively young mechanics have shown. And he had a message for McMillen.
“Terry McMillen trained these kids good. They all love you, Terry. I want you to know that, and I love you too. Just keep fighting, you'll be back out here. I had to set out a year to fight, to come back - but while you guys carried the ball. So it will be fighting for you. And I hope you're back soon. Your guys miss you because you were a good leader, and I hope I can be as good as you,” Force said. “It's tough because it's a tough sell right now, but I'm going into that. That's going to be my full-time job, chasing sponsors, me and Robert Hight. Let the teams do what they do."
ALLEN NOT GATORS ROOKIE ANYMORE – This is Artie Allen’s second shot at the Gatornationals – within the past six months.
The longtime racer of bikes, dirt bikes, boats, and, of course, hot rods, finally entered his home-track race decades after first taking his 1970 Chevelle to the strip at age 16. And he qualified 12th in the Top Fuel order last year – six months after he expected it to happen. He had been armed with a brand-new Murf McKinney-built dragster, licensing guidance from experienced tuner Aaron Brooks, and a pile of information from just about the most knowledgeable person in the sport, Del Worsham. Allen had prepared for about three years for this debut, and he thought of just about everything . . . except for an impending pandemic.
Every racer, every team, went on a hiatus just as they had gathered for the Gatornationals, the third race of the 2020 season. The East Coast classic was rescheduled for September, and Allen was right there when the series returned. He lost in the opening round of eliminations to Doug Foley, but even with his parachute falling out prematurely, Allen ran a 4.086-second pass at 237.30 mph that was quicker and faster than his qualifying time (4.952, 153.30).
Allen has a race shop in the Jacksonville/St. Augustine area, but his main job is as an underground utility contractor, doing water, sewer, and swamp drainage.
GRAND SLAM IN SIGHT – The Kalitta Motorsports duo of Shawn Langdon in Top Fuel and JR Todd in Funny Car are on the verge of a significant personal double-up. Both Toyota drivers are a Gatornationals victory away from scoring drag-racing’s Grand Slam. They have won at the Winternationals, the U.S. Nationals, and the NHRA Finals – and each has won a championship, Langdon in Top Fuel in 2013, Todd in Funny Car in 2018.
“Gainesville is a track that I haven’t won at yet. So I definitely have a lot of motivation to do well,” Langdon said. “This year it’s the season kick-off. It has eluded me for a number of years, and I’d like to get that checked off the list.” He said he didn’t concentrate on the Grand-Salm aspect of it all: “For me, it’s just about winning races. That’s the biggest thing. Regardless of where it is, I’d like to win at every track, and Gainesville is one of them.”
Todd said, “For me, Gainesville is right up there at the top with winning Indy. It’s one of the biggest in our sport, along with the U.S. Nationals and the Pomona races. It’s one that I’ve always wanted to check off the list but haven’t been able to. Hopefully, we can do that here in 2021. The Gatornationals is one of the most historic and prestigious races on the tour. It’s like the East-Coast version of the Winternationals, and it brings out a lot of the legends of our sport and some great memories. We’d like to add our name to that list.”
PRUETT FOCUSED ON SELF THIS YEAR – Armed with a new car and a new attitude, she said, Top Fuel threat Leah Pruett has been itching to get on the racetrack when everything counts. In preseason testing, she clocked the class’ best elapsed time on opening day (3.81.41 seconds), was No. 2 last Friday at 3.745, 321.42 mph, and was second Saturday (matching Doug Kalitta’s E.T. of 3.716 seconds but with a slower 320.20 mph to his 325.06). Overall, she posted the third-quickest time. But everyone was testing all kinds of aspects of their programs, and none of the numbers was official. Starting this Friday, it all counts.
And Pruett is ready to make every run a step to her first Top Fuel crown.
Always ambitious, Pruett has a challenging set of goals this season. In addition to her Top Fuel commitment, she is scheduled to compete in the full eight Factory Stock Showdown line-up.
“I always have goals to win races and a championship. However, going winless in 2020 has made me set more specific incremental goals. I intend to win at least three national events this season. You can’t do that without being great and consistent. If we can win three, we are in a good spot for intense momentum, which leads to advancement on the field, and that is an intricate variable into winning a championship. Call it a goal, or bucket list, or dedication to whatever it will take this season, my goal is to win both a Top Fuel and Factory Stock Showdown national event title on the same day. We have eight opportunities to do so this year, and my intention after four years of perfecting the craft of competing in both is to solidify this goal.”
“I couldn’t be more thrilled about entering my sixth season with crew chief Todd Okuhara, and a third season with Neal Strausbaugh. This duo is one that has been magic in the making, and one that makes me proud to drive their dragster. The majority of our team has remained intact with a few new faces coming in on the crew, one of which was an intern we had a couple of years ago. For us to remain intact and continue to build with confidence and enthusiasm is important, as that is how you build a winning team. Performance-wise, we tested in West Palm this past week in similar conditions to competition atmosphere, so I believe starting the season in Gainesville will prove beneficial to consistency. Where we start is not super-important or meaningful to me, because it’s how we finish that really matters.”
Pruett shared with Competition Plus content-sharing partner WFO Radio and Florida’s own Joe Castello that her boyfriend, motorsports giant Tony Stewart, has been studying drag racing, “focused on the dynamic of being perfect.” As for whether the constantly busy driver and series, racetrack, and team ever will jump into arguably his last frontier of racing, Pruett said, “If he does end up pursuing it, I’m very scared for anybody who has to race against him.”
What’s significant about that is that Stewart’s influence has been a positive, maybe even career-pivoting, experience for her.
Not only has he given her a fresh perspective, she said, about the entire ecosystem of motorsports, but his singular focus has rubbed off on her. “My performance increased at the end of 2020 because I no longer cared who I was against in the other lane.” Focused solely on her own situation, she said, “I know what I need to do and what my team needs to do. And if we do that right – just as [NFL quarterback] Tom Brady said at the last Super Bowl: It’s just confidence in yourself and focusing on yourself. I’m starting the season like that.”
Pruett said, “I love Doug Kalitta. He’s so focused all the time. He’s got a business to run during the week. He flies in, he gets the job done, and he flies out. Drag racing isn’t his life. That’s maturity. Maturity goes through waves, and it’s about staying in your lane. I’m in a wave of maturity journey of drag racing.”
The question in Top Fuel is whether anyone can derail the Steve Torrence train and interrupt his head of steam as he plows toward a fourth consecutive championship. Pruett said, “If there’s anybody that can do it, we are definitely that team. We can’t outspend them, but I guess we can outwork them. We can outwork, outplan, outlast, and all those survivor things. That’s what it’s going to take. They’ve got all the great resources, but it’s not impossible. It can be done. It lies with heart. And the heart of Steve and the Laganas and all the guys there is incredible. But the Hawaiian Punch [Okuhara] and Neal [Strausbaugh] [are capable].”
One advantage Pruett and team have this season over last year’s program is the lack of what she called “distractions.” Referring to “what we went through last year, of creating a second team for Cory Mac [McClenathan] and bringing Tony Schumacher back,” Pruett said, “We had a lot of distractions that a lot of people don’t know of.” Her teams seemed to be Ground Zero for those mid- and late-season additions to the Don Schumacher Racing team. For her Mopar/Okuma team, it was a case of musical dragsters, yet she was able to finish fourth in the standings for the third straight season. So it’s a blessing, she said, to be able to begin this season with the chance to focus on just one car.
As for her challenge to earn her first Top Fuel title, Pruett said, “I don’t want to say, ‘Steve, we’re coming for you,’ because no, we’re going to stay in our own lane. But for the fans, this is going to be a great season to watch, I can guarantee you.”
JFR COULD HAVE ITS OWN GATORS TROPHY CASE – Gainesville Raceway is a place with both triumphant and tragic memories for John Force Racing. JFR drivers and personnel, along with countless drag-racing participants and fans, never will forget popular up-and-coming Funny Car racer Eric Medlen, who passed away four days after incurring injuries in a testing accident here in 2007. But it also has been the setting for some joyous moments, for sure.
Brittany Force and her crew chief, Dave Grubnic (who was driving for Kalitta Motorsports at the time), won here 10 years apart, Grubnic March 19, 2006 and she March 20, 2016. She shared the winners circle with Funny Car colleague Robert Hight as he earned his third of four Gatornationals victories. The team captured 11 other Funny Car victories here, including a class-best eight by the boss himself, John Force. The other JFR Gatornationals trophies went to Tony Pedregon in 2002 (before he won in 2008 with his own team), Gary Densham in 2003, and Mike Neff in 2011.
After her best pass of 3.679 seconds at the preseason test session last weekend proved she’s a contender again after a year’s absence, Force said, “I’m excited to see what we can do this weekend. We’ll be coming out swinging right out of the gate, looking for our first win at the first race of the season. It’s a special place for me, but it’s special this year because we’ve been gone so long.”
In 2016, Force raced to her first NHRA Top Fuel win and celebrated alongside teammate Robert Hight in the winner’s circle for John Force Racing’s first double-up victory. At the 2019 Gatornationals, her last appearance at the event, Force set the track elapsed time record of 3.680-seconds on her way to becoming the first woman in 40 years to qualify in the top spot at the event.
A successful test session at Palm Beach International Raceway has Force and her David Grubnic and Mac Savage led Monster Energy team confident heading into the season opener. Force ran low of the test session with an impressive 3.679-second pass at 331.04 mph, landing her at the top of both the speed and low elapsed time list.
“It’s been a year since we’ve been out here and it feels awesome to be back in the car, back with my team, back with the fans and all of John Force Racing as a whole. Our team rolled right back into things in our first pass,” said Force. “I feel like we’re pretty close to where we left off over a year ago. Grubnic is happy, Savage is happy, I feel good in the car and the whole team is pumped to go to Gainesville.”
Before John Force Racing made the tough decision to sit out the 2020 season, Force had landed in the No. 1 qualifying position at both the Winternationals in Pomona, Calif. and the NHRA Arizona Nationals is Phoenix.
Hight had only a couple of races in which to enjoy his third Funny Car reign last year, then he went into hibernation. Even though he missed nine races, he won a second straight marketing “Drags or Checkered Flags” contest against NASCAR fulltimer Joey Logano. But that’s not the real battle he wants to win ultimately. When he returned to the track in testing last weekend, he fired a shot across the Funny Car bow with a 333.33-mph speed. None of the numbers coming out of Palm Beach International Raceway were official, and speed is not the determining factor in an elimination round-win – elapsed time is. Just the same, the moment and its message weren’t lost on Hight.
“Testing went really good. It’s good to be back in my Auto Club Chevy, to be back with my team. The car is responding well and things are lining up,” Hight said. “It was a long time off. I’m happy we didn’t forget how to do this.” He hasn’t forgotten that he won here three times, either (2012, 2014, 2016). At the 50th running of this event, in 2019, Hight was the No. 1 qualifier for the third consecutive time, making him the first nitro racer to start a season with three No. 1 qualifiers since Kenny Bernstein in 1987. In 2017, Hight set both ends of the track record at 3.828-seconds and 334.82 mph. Like Force in Top Fuel, Hight has the quickest and fastest speed in NHRA history: 3.793 seconds, 339.87 mph.)
“Gainesville has been really good to this Auto Club team,” he said. “We missed racing here but the last memories we have are of picking up that win at the 50th anniversary of the event. We’re ready to build on that. We’ll see what we can do, it’s definitely going to be a show this weekend. This is a big race, it always is, this year it’s even bigger because it’s opening up the season.”
John Force was the only Funny Car driver to go quicker than Hight in preseason testing. He took his Peak/BlueDEF Platinum Chevry Camaro down the Palm Beach racetrack in 3.860 seconds.
Hight was just six-thousandths of a second slower. They were the only ones coaxing a 3.86 from their cars, although current and three-time champ Matt Hagan was on their heels at 3.880 in his Don Schumacher Racing entry. Both Force and Hight are looking for their first victory since the fall of 2018. Force’s most recent victory, his 151st, came at the U.S. Nationals September 2, 2018, at Indianapolis (more than 18 months ago), and Hight’s was October 2019, at Charlotte (17 months ago).
“I always like getting to Gainesville. It’s always a big show,” Force said.
SOME SURPRISING HISTORY – Friday would have been the 58th birthday of versatile racer John Andretti, who passed away from colon cancer January 30, 2020. Andretti had a fling in drag racing decades ago, in Jack Clark’s Taco Express Top Fuel dragster. But he has another, indirect connection to drag racing.
Back in 2006, he was instructed to make a sponsorship pitch to a businessman he never had met and probably didn’t know. His job, he was told, was to go to the Concord, N.C., airport and meet with this gentleman. Oh, and by the way, he was told, “This guy has no time. He’s probably not interested, but he’ll give you an hour.” The man owned a company called Freedom Roads. His company had merged with Camping World, with him taking over as CEO.
“I set up lunch in a little room at the Concord Airport. I’d never sold sponsorship, but I talked about the advantages of being involved. The value in the Busch Series was a way to get your foot in the door – not huge amount of dollars, but you’ll get a lot in return,” Andretti said in his autobiography, “Racer” that was published posthumously by Octane Press with as-told-to author Jade Gurss (who, incidentally, worked years ago at Heartland Park Topeka).
The man Andretti was thrown into that room with was Marcus Lemonis, whose Camping World is the new sponsor of NHRA professional drag racing.
“That was the day Camping World came into motorsports,” Andretti said in reflection. “They sponsored our car, and we came in 12th in points. Lemonis kept leading the brand into bigger and bigger sponsorships in NASCAR. In 2009, the Craftsman Truck Series became the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.”
When Coca-Cola bailed abruptly on its NHRA series sponsorship last year, Lemonis gave the NHRA a shout-out via Twitter and began a much-welcomed relationship with straightline racing. So drag-racing fans can salute Andretti for initiating this momentous development in NHRA history as it celebrates its 70th birthday.
THE ERA OF ERICA – Oh so much has changed in the Pro Stock class since 2010. Greg Anderson had won yet another championship, a fourth, and was vaulting into the stratosphere of class legends. Today he still commands respect with his 94 victories (second only to John Force among active drivers), 840 round-wins (fourth-most in NHRA history), and 106 No. 1 qualifying positions. But July 1, 2012, the tide shifted. Anderson still won plenty more races (although none since Dallas 2019). What shifted the momentum that evening was a young woman from Houston and her victory at Chicago – against rival Anderson in the final round, which made it all the juicier for her. She became the first woman to win a Pro Stock race.
She said Anderson “grabbed my shoulder and said, ‘Well deserved.' That means a lot, coming from [him].” She referred to him as “an 800-billion-time champion and somebody I’ve been trying to beat for eight years.” But at that point, Anderson already was perturbed that he had made “the history book now for the wrong reason,” he said. “The bottom line is this has been a long time coming for Erica. You knew she was going to win soon. I didn't want to be the guy on the other end, but I am now,” he said. “And it's probably going to open the floodgates for her."
It did. In her last NHRA Pro Stock appearance, Enders matched Anderson’s four series crowns (and those of the late Lee Shepherd) and became the sport’s most successful woman. Her 29th victory lifted her to eighth on the class’ all-time list, but it pushed her past drag-racing icon Shirley Muldowney (Top Fuel) and Pro Stock Motorcycle trailblazer and 43-time winner Angelle Sampey for the most titles among NHRA women.
“It’s pretty awesome to join the winningest female, Angelle, and then of course, Shirley, who’s one of my heroes, paved the way for all of the girls nowadays and a tough woman who has offered a lot of solid advice for me,” Enders said. “It’s a goal I set as a child, that I wanted to be the best race-car driver on the planet, not just female. To be one ahead of my idols means a lot to me. I don’t feel like I’m anywhere near done yet, but even if I were, this is huge.”
It’s safe to say this is The Era of Erica. Anderson certainly is no less a threat. But she described her ascent in Pro Stock lore by borrowing from the so-called “Spirit of Aggieland.” It’s woven into the culture at Texas A&M University, where she is a Class of 2006 Mays Business School alumna.
“Like we said at Texas A&M, from the outside looking in, you can't understand it. And from the inside looking out, you can't explain it,” Enders said.
That’s an apt depiction of her journey, which began nearly 30 years ago at age eight as a Jr. Dragster competitor and has progressed through the Super Gas, Super Comp, Factory Stock Showdown, Stock, Competition Eliminator, and Pro Modified classes.
This most decorated professional woman in the NHRA has navigated all kinds of roadblocks and speed bumps: short-lived sponsorship deals, the occasional run-in with an on-track rival, the heartbreak of a broken car at the starting line in the final round, losing close races, red-lighting, and being tricked by malfunctioning electronics telling her she won when she didn’t. She has learned valuable lessons about corporate cunning that has made posting stellar reaction times and hitting shift points seem like a breeze. Those experiences have galvanized her, and she’s looking ahead rather than backwards, with her Elite Performance team.
“I believe that our ability to persevere through any circumstance is what makes us great,” Enders said of the Richard Freeman-orchestrated operation with whom she has registered all four championships. “No matter what the world, the NHRA, our competitors, or our haters throw at us, we find a way to dig deep and play with all the heart we have. Individually we all have strengths, but together we are unstoppable. I believe and trust in this team with everything that I have. They are the reason why I am here. Our fearless leader, Richard Freeman, organized the most perfect group of people. We crawled our way to the top, earning every bonus point, every qualifying position, every round win, every national event win and every world championship. We did it with our backs against the wall, and we did it together. That's what makes our team special. It’s what makes us ‘Elite.’”
Bo Butner, the 2017 class champion, said, “She's badass. I mean, she hops in the cars. She's been taught well, but people need to realize she paid her dues.” And Jason Line, who retired in November, said Enders is one of his top three favorite opponents. Tanner Gray, the 2017 champ and now-NASCAR rising star, had a tiff with Enders off the track. But when Gray defeated her in the final round at Richmond in 2018, he was humble, saying, “You’ve got to respect her. She’s a two-time champ and has accomplished a lot more than I have.” But Anderson still is a bit of a tough nut to crack. His rivalry with Enders carries mutual respect but is nettlesome nonetheless. He conceded, “She’s a great racer, does a great job,” but he stopped short of confirming she had earned her way into the Pro Stock Parthenon. He said, “We’ll have to see how it all shakes out at the end of her career.” But she shrugged off his lukewarm endorsement, saying, “That guy has hated losing to a girl from the day I set foot on the scene – and I plan to keep it that way.”
Unlike Butner, Gray, and Line, she hasn’t left the Pro Stock class in 2021, but she said she plans to race in some sportsman-level classes.
“I definitely have interest in racing Pro Mod again. I think our new Pro Charger program shows a lot of promise. However, my dad and team owner aren't too keen on the idea after our catastrophe of a fire in Norwalk [in June 2019] that destroyed our car and did everything it could to take me with it! Let's just say I'm game. I just have some convincing to do,” Enders said. “We plan to continue to run some Competition Eliminator, and I have interest in some super class racing, as well. Time will tell, but you can bet I will be competing in a few classes this year, in addition to chasing our fifth world title in Pro Stock.”
But unlike Anderson, Butner, Gray, and Line, Enders has not won at Gainesville. She was runner-up to Allen Johnson in 2014 and to Tom Martino in 2006. It’s just one more hurdle to clear for a woman who has jumped her share of them on the way to excellence.
HAGAN HAS UNFINISHED BUSINESS – Current and three-time Funny Car champion Matt Hagan has led his field here at Gainesville Raceway three times (in 2010, 2011, and 2020) and was the Gatornationals runner-up in 2018. But he never has sealed the deal here in Central Florida.
“There are some tracks and some races that I haven't won at yet and one that really sticks out in my mind is Gainesville. I've been to the finals here, but you still can't just show up and expect to win,” Hagan said. “You have to have a plan of action to do that, and with it being our kickoff race this year, I really want to win the Gatornationals. It's very important to me to reinforce our championship and get a new year started the right way. I'm a hundred percent motivated to win that race. It's also so close to home for me that I have a lot of people there to support the effort. I've been there, I've tasted it, but I just come up short.”
Seeking his 37th victory, he said he’s “excited to get back out here for the 2021 Camping World season with a championship-caliber car to defend my title with fans back in the stands and everyone having a good time.”
DE JORIA POSITIONING HERSELF AS CONTENDER – Alexis De Joria spent two years away from her NHRA Funny Car career for family reasons, and just two races into her reunion season – this time as a team owner – everyone had to step away for four months.
Through persistence and pandemic, she has performed extraordinarily well. In the final five races of 2020, which for the most part served as the second half of the season, she re-established herself as a contender.
DeJoria’s first test for the DC Motorsports team she co-owns with two-time nitro champion Del Worsham will be this weekend’s Gatornationals. The Gainesville, Fla., event traditionally is the third race of the season. But with ongoing state health restrictions to consider, the NHRA made its “East Coast opener” the entire-season-starter this year.
Faith in Worsham and co-crew chief Nicky Boninfante has formed the foundation for De Joria.
Their chemistry helped yield three semifinal appearances in the final four races of 2020. By qualifying among the top five every time through the final five events, she earned the fourth-most points among Funny Car drivers in that stretch.
“I have so much confidence in Del and Nicky it is really hard to put into words,” De Joria, driver of the ROKiT/Bandero Toyota Camry, said. “Last season, we were all working with a rookie team, and we really came together as the season progressed. You are always going to have growing pains, but Del and Nicky continued to work hard and figure out a tune-up. They kept at it over the offseason, and we are seeing positive results already in 2021. I am looking forward to standing with them in the winners circle very soon.”
At last weekend’s preseason test session at Palm Beach International Raceway (PBIR), De Joria best clockings – a 3.919-second elapsed time at 316.15 mph – put her fifth overall among Funny Car racers. The four competitors ahead of her – John Force, Robert Hight, Matt Hagan, and Ron Capps – have a combined 23 series crowns and 303 victories. So she’s holding her own against the best the Funny Car class ever has seen.
“After a partial season last year, I definitely feel more confident in the car,” De Joria said. “After being off for two years, last year was just getting re-acclimated with everything. I think I did a pretty good job. Towards the end of the season, we were getting a good handle on things. Our ROKiT Camry was consistent and fast.
“Del, Nicky, and I talked about it over the offseason, and we’re really not going to change much as far as the tune-up. We’re not throwing any new combinations out there,” she said. Despite debuting an upgraded chassis that needed to go through some paces at the PRO Winter Warm-up, she said, “We’re planning to work with and improve on what we had at the end of last season.”
She has the stability of a seasoned crew that didn’t change with the personnel merry-go-round that spun seemingly nonstop the past few months.
“Everybody is here from last year. That’s always a good thing. It’s been hard during these times, and there’s been a lot of shifts throughout the pits, but luckily, we’ve all stayed intact. I’m proud to say that and very grateful,” De Joria said. “These guys put in so much hard work in the offseason, making both of our cars [including the back-up] the same. We have both cars ready to go.”
Her goals are simple and attainable: “to go more rounds, keep the consistency, and to win a race. It didn’t take long last year for our team to come together, so this year is going to be that much better. It’s been great working with these guys.”
She is one of three women to win in the Funny Car class. The others are sisters Ashley and Courtney Force. No woman in the class has won the Gatornationals.
“Winning the Gatornationals is a big deal no matter who you are,” De Joria said. “There has been so much history at that track [that] you just want to add your name to the list of winners. It is usually one of the first races of the season, so having it as the kick-off event makes it even cooler, I think. There should be a decent crowd, and I know there has been a buzz about getting the NHRA season started. I am just pumped to get back to the track and start competing in this ROKiT/Bandero Premium Tequila Camry Funny Car.”
De Joria, who’s expecting to make the field for her eighth start at Gainesville, said, “I used to live near there. Gainesville was my home track at one point. I lived in Bronson, Florida, for two years when I raced Alcohol Funny Car with Bob Newberry. Every time I come back to Gainesville, it’s really special. I got my first round-win in Gainesville. There’s a lot of really good things that I’ve attached to that track. A win there would be incredible. It’s definitely on my bucket list.”
As the NHRA prepares to celebrate its 70th birthday this season, no woman has earned a Funny Car championship. De Joria doesn’t race against any women in her class, but she will be battling a dozen women across all four pro classes to claim the 12th NHRA pro championship by a woman.