2021 NHRA SOUTHERN NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
SUNDAY NOTEBOOK - TURN OUT THE LIGHTS, THE PARTY IS OVER
ANTRON BROWN CAPTURES FINAL TOP FUEL WIN AT ATLANTA DRAGWAY - Atlanta Dragway is where the racing dream started to form for Antron Brown.
So, it seems only fitting that Brown won the Top Fuel title at the 40th annual Lucas Oil NHRA Southern Nationals in the final event at the track
Brown clocked a 3.752-second elapsed time at 325.22 mph in his Don Schumacher Racing Matco's 'Tools for the Cause' Toyota dragster to edge reigning three-time world champion Steve Torrence’s 3.794-second run at 323.81 mph.
“It’s just special,” Brown said about winning the final race at Atlanta Dragway. “Lord knows from up above. It's a true blessing to be racing here in Atlanta. I started at this track; it's got some very fond memories. Won my first AMA Pro Star Race here. Won in it with bikes, won in this the 5th time in top fuel and it's just like a candle been lit. I’m going to miss this place because all the people out here and all these fans, they're like family. Every time we come down here, they're always here to the end, always pushing you. Win, lose or draw they push you and make you just go for more.”
This was his seventh national event win at Atlanta Dragway. He has Top Fuel wins in 2008, 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2021. He also claimed two Pro Stock Motorcycle victories at the track in 2001 and 2006.
Brown now has 52 career Top Fuel national event wins tying him for third all-time in NHRA history with Joe Amato.
“I just hope that we can get another track down this area because this is definitely a special place for all of us,” Brown said. “This track is one of the nostalgia tracks. I grew up in Englishtown, Atco. It's been the same all the time and this is one of those tracks where you come here, when you take that deep breath, you just get that vibe of home. This is the home grunt drag race facility that you just come up during the week, test and tuning, Gambler’s race on Wednesday nights and you come out here on the weekend, try to improve on some tough, tough gritty grinding racers. This is what this track brings out in everybody. It brings that grind and that grit out. And that's what I'm gonna miss most, but it feels good. I can look on there and say, ‘hey, this Matco Tools team, we got the last one.’”
Brown, who has won three Top Fuel world championships in 2012 and 2015-16, acknowledged the last several years have been a struggle.
“It's been tough the whole time, but the thing about it is, everybody knows in life is that everything's not going to be great all the time,” Brown said. “But the thing about it is when you want to be a true champion is not when you're winning, is when you're losing and how you overcome those obstacles. What happens is we just keep our head down and our team just keeps digging deep. And when we all get together and when you get everybody on that team pushing the same way getting together, we can hold that mountain up and we could knock mountains down, and that's what this team did.
“Only way you beat resistance, like I always say, is with persistence, and we're persistent and we didn't qualify where we wanted to (at No. 8). The track was tricky. But what we did was every round that we got one round farther we just worked on it, made it better each round and when we got to the final round, you're racing the Capco boys. The three-time champs in a row where you got to show up and we didn't leave anything on the table. We stepped up. We went a .78 and Brian (Corradi) and Mark (Oswald) and the rest of these Matco boys, they put them tools to work, kept their head down and we say, “you know what? It’s going to go, or it might not go but that's what we need to win.” And it was sure enough when we needed to win.”
On Sunday, Brown defeated Doug Kalitta, No. 1 qualifier Billy Torrence and world champions Brittany Force and Steve Torrence. The win was even sweeter since this is only his third national event win since August of 2018.
“Oh brother, you know what the driving force was? It was God,” said Brown when asked what kept him going during the tough times. “Every time that I just looked down and looked around when you just want to say, ‘man is this is it? What do we got to do? What else do we got to do?’ You keep on trying and trying and doesn't go your way, you just keep on fighting and he's going to show you that way.
“It’s always for a reason and that's what I try to tell my kids, I try to tell the students I talk to at all the junior colleges and high schools I go to, is that when times are rough, they're meant to be that way for you to do your learning. Because that’s when you learn. And I've learned so much over that whole time where you gotta keep moving and keep on turning them leaves over, open these doors, open that door, look in the closet, open the sink up, whatever you gotta do, do it and put the work in. I mean, people don’t realize that I work out, I do two-a-days. I work out in the morning; I work out in the evening and I can't move some mornings when I get up. Everybody is like, ‘AB, why you look so young? Why you so behind? Why are you running left and right?’ I said because that's what I do every day. I'm never stopping. The day I stop is the day I get out of that seat and I got a lot more juice to go.” Tracy Renck
TASCA BEATS FORCE FOR MONUMENTAL ATLANTA FUNNY CAR WIN - Bob Tasca III wouldn't have wanted it any other way.
The final race at the storied Atlanta Dragway, a final-round win match against John Force, and a chance to go back-to-back for the second time since 2019.
"There's nobody else you want to race than John Force," Tasca said. "Nobody else. I mean he is the gold standard. They'll never be anyone even close to what he's achieved out here, and it's just a privilege to be able to pull up alongside a living legend. To be able to beat him in the finals, I mean, a big part of why I'm here is John Force. So I know he wanted to win, but if you had to lose to anyone, I'm sure I'm probably one of his top picks."
Force left on Tasca, only to have the Ford Mustang driver come around him at the finish line. He stopped the timers with a 4.004 elapsed time at 326.44 miles per hour, surpassing Force's 4.015, 321.81. In winning, Tasca held Force to seven Atlanta Dragway wins leaving him as the second most successful racer here.
On the road to the winner's circle, Tasca beat Paul Lee, Blake Alexander, and Matt Hagan.
"You know we had momentum, but what a different race than Vegas," Tasca explained. "I mean, this thing was hard-fought from the beginning. The track difference coming from Vegas to here. There are just so many adjustments that have to take place. To see Mike Neff and John Schaffer and these guys make the right calls every single round. As a driver, you want to be put in a position to win. That's all you can ask for. And these guys have done that unbelievably this year and go back-to-back.
"We had a great car, you got a great team, but you know something? So you got a long season, and we look at it at one round at a time, and that's how this team thinks. We're confident but not cocky because any one of those rounds we could have lost by a fraction of a second. So we're going to celebrate a little bit tonight, and we'll get ready for Charlotte."
Just to think it was three years ago when Tasca convinced Ford to return to drag racing with the promise of delivering wins.
"It's taken me a long time to get here in my career," Tasca said. "A lot of hard years, lot of hard years. It's almost emotional for me a little bit because it all comes down to people. You've got to surround yourself with the right people. I've had a lot of great people over the years, but with Mike Neff coming on board with John Schaffer, for whatever reason, it just kind of changed the whole attitude of the program."
And for Tasca, he'd have it no other way. Bobby Bennett
PRO STOCK STAR GREG ANDERSON MAKES IT TWO WINS IN 2021 WITH ATLANTA VICTORY - Greg Anderson is one step closer to making NHRA Pro Stock history.
Anderson captured the title at the 40th annual Lucas Oil Southern Nationals Sunday to claim his 96th career Pro Stock national event win, one away from tying his mentor and all-time Pro Stock wins leader Warren Johnson.
Anderson driving his Ken Black-owned Denso Chevrolet Camaro won for the second time this season in three races. His first victory came at the season-opening Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla., March 14.
Anderson defeated Fernando Cuadra, Matt Hartford, Erica Enders and Nobile, who made his season debut driving for Richard Freeman’s Elite Motorsports team.
In the finals, Anderson clocked a 6.568-second elapsed time at 209.04 mph to edge Nobile’s 6.598-second lap at 208.78 mph.
“I couldn't script it any better,” said Anderson, who also qualified No. 1. “Absolutely right from the start it's just been a dream weekend and you know the weather's been perfect, the crowd is jam-packed. We haven't seen that in a year-and-a-half.”
Anderson has won NHRA Pro Stock world championships 2003-2005 and 2010. Sunday fifth in Atlanta, which is hosting the final event in the track’s rich history.
Anderson won at Atlanta Dragway in 2004-2005, 2007, 2012 and 2021.
“Now I'm like it's awesome but I hate to see it go. Really hate to see it go,” he said. “It's a bummer. I wish there was something we could do about that but obviously there's not.
But at least we made the most of it and we made a lasting memory.”
Anderson improved his season elimination-round record to 9-1. Anderson served as a crew member and crew chief for Warren Johnson during four of Johnson’s six NHRA world championships.
Anderson began his NHRA Pro Stock career in 1998 and in 2007, Anderson beat Johnson in the finals to win at Atlanta Dragway. Tracy Renck
PSM STANDOUT POLLACHECK SNARES HIS SECOND CAREER WALLY AT ATLANTA DRAGWAY’S LAST RACE - Last season in NHRA, Pro Stock Motorcycle veteran Scotty Pollacheck turned some heads.
The Oregon native finished a career-best third in the NHRA season points standings and won his inaugural national event title, capturing the crown at the Denso U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis in September.
This season, he’s once again proving he is a legitimate contender to win a world championship.
Pollacheck won the 40th annual Lucas Oil Southern Nationals Sunday when he beat his teammate Matt Smith in the final round when Smith had a red-light start at Atlanta Dragway.
Pollacheck, who qualified No. 1 with his 6.779-track-record elapsed time, mowed down the competition to snare his second career Wally.
Pollacheck ousted Jerry Savoie, Ryan Oehler, Angelle Sampey and Smith during his victory parade.
“It's awesome anytime you can win but this one's really, really special because my wife Susan was able to be here this time,” Pollacheck said. “Last year at Indy, she wasn't here. To race Matt in the final you have all MSR bikes in there, that's just amazing. Nate Kendrick, who is Matt’s crew guy, he's awesome. Him and his wife Amy, they help everybody here so much. Joel, my partner at home and Quality Tire, I couldn't do this if it wasn't for him. He lets me come out here and live my dream and do this stuff and what an amazing deal. I mean, it's kind of like coming full circle now with everybody here and an all-MSR final. I think Matt and I are one and two in points and doesn't get much better than that.”
Despite losing in the finals, Smith was smiling.
“MSR and Denso, they’re the real winners of this race,” Smith said. “We won the race. We knew it going in the finals that we already had won. Just a simple fact, I had the slower bike of the round and I went for it. I come up .001 red and tried the tune-up and the tune-up worked. My bike was just off on tune-up. I had Scotty’s and Angie’s bike running really good this weekend.
“You never go up at a red light. But Q2 I knew where I could be at with my clutch and I went .004 against Angelle in qualifying, so I knew that's where I wanted to be. I wanted to go .00 because I knew that would probably do it, and it was just .001 on the wrong side.”
Pollacheck, pilots a Gen 2 Erik Buell Racing motorcycle for Matt Smith Racing
Pollacheck arrived in Atlanta fourth in the season points standings in his Denso/Strutmasters.com motorcycle.
And, in the final he didn’t realize Smith had a red-light start, which made things a little crazy for him.
“Well, I panicked a little bit because when I let the clutch out it bogged really bad,” he said. “As soon as it did that, it gave me a little bit of time to look up and I saw the win light, come on. So, there was a lot of relief going on there because I knew it was over and I'd won, and we'd gotten a little bit of luck there and we needed it. But it seems like you can never get all the way to the end of one of these deals with a little bit of luck. So, we'll take it.”
Pollacheck, who clocked a 6.921-second time in the finals, was appearing in a final round for the ninth time. Tracy Renck
THE DEFINING POINT - Atlanta Dragway didn't launch two-time NHRA champion and veteran crew chief Del Worsham's career, but it certainly put it on an upward trajectory.
Worsham won the 1991 NHRA Southern Nationals, the first time he ever drove a race car at the facility. He defeated Mark Oswald for his monumental victory.
Worsham admits, the event he won was the most pivotal in his career.
"To tell you the truth, I thought I was going home after this event," he said. "Basically, we qualified for the Winston Invitational and made a few bucks there. We used the money to come here, but we had full intentions of going home after this race. We came to Atlanta. We came to the Southern Nationals and, then, we came here and won it."
The lessons one can learn in winning.
"I saw how big of an event it was, and I learned that there was a press room, which I didn't know even existed until that point," Worsham recalled. "I was pretty amazed. If I look back at one event that changed everything, it would have to be this event."
Worsham said his goodbyes Sunday afternoon after a rough first day of eliminations when driver Alexis DeJoria was disqualified when her Toyota Funny Car had issues staging.
"It's said to see the place go," Worsham said. "You can tell by the crowds we saw this weekend that it's a popular place, and they have always been able to draw massive crowds.
"Really, any track that's getting shut down or sold is definitely sad, but to lose the track that meant this much to you and was your first win, and there's just a history of emotions that go with this place."
A PUZZLING SITUATION - Worsham and co-crew chief Nicky Boninfante spent much of the weekend chasing a gremlin; they still couldn't diagnose Sunday afternoon.
During Saturday's Q-2 session, as Boninfante guided DeJoria into the stage beam, the pre-stage beam lit up. This was unusual because DeJoria had not rolled far enough in, and Boninfante is experienced enough not to step into the beams.
"I just assumed, 'Well, maybe he just left his foot in the beam or he pulled her up too far, and she got the top light on."
"And then, when he pulled his foot away and it didn't go out, it was still odd, but again, it didn't seem like anything we couldn't overcome. And then when she rolled forward and the second light wouldn't come on and everything started flickering, we knew that there was definitely a problem somewhere."
Worsham wasn't sure at this point whether the issue with the Funny Car's body or the timing system.
"We lost the time slip, but it wasn't a very good run anyways," Worsham said.
In the other lane was Jim Campbell and Jim Dunn Racing, who waited patiently for DeJoria to stage.
"They're the ones that got hung out there for six or seven seconds," Worsham said. "Luckily, it didn't really affect them, but he was staged. Our beams are just slashing and look like Christmas trees over there. Blinking lights everywhere."
It was deja vu all over again in Sunday's first round as DeJoria was unable to stage the car. This time after seven seconds, J.R. Todd singled for the victory as DeJoria emerged from her car, frustrated.
"This isn't like our team," DeJoria said. "We don't do things like this. We've been around for a long time. It's just ridiculous. I'm not mad at the guy. It's just one of those things, man. It happens, and we just got to take it back and figure it out. We pulled the other car from last year out to run this race to just make sure both cars are dialed in, and it's been giving us a little bit of a headache.
"Embarrassing, and it's not the way you want to lose first round or any round, really. I'm pretty upset that this is the last race here. I was hoping we could get a win here.
BRITTANY TO THE SEMIS - After qualifying No. 5, Brittany Force and the Monster Energy team laced together three solid runs for a semifinal finish.
In the first round, Force piloted her dragster to a 3.768-second pass at 330.63 mph to defeat Doug Foley's 3.797 at 318.77. Her speed would stand as the quickest of the weekend. The win sent her into the second round, where she managed another solid pass in her Monster Energy dragster, running 3.755-seconds at 328.54 mph ending Josh Hart's day after he made a 3.820 pass at 321.58 mph.
In the semifinals, Force would line up with eventual event winner and familiar foe Antron Brown, she's faced him 23 times in her career. It would be a clean and close race with Force handling her Monster Energy dragster to a 3.785-second pass at 323.89 mph that was narrowly bettered by Brown's 3.786 at 320.51.
"Good weekend for this Monster Energy/Flav-R-Pac team. Final race in Atlanta. We wanted to get the job done, but we went some rounds with a semifinal round finish," said Force, who moves to fifth in points. "I know we moved up in points, so we're making progress. We're getting there. I've been out of the seat for a year, so we're already off to a good start."
SCHOOL'S OUT - Warren "The Professor" Johnson knows Atlanta Dragway like it's the back of his hand.
Johnson raced the Commerce, Ga.-based track for decades, winning the last IHRA national event and clinching his first career series championship.
The year was 1979, and Johnson was a hired gun for Georgia-based businessman Jerome Bradford.
What gets lost in the history of the storied facility is its formative years as an IHRA sanctioned track which hosted two national events a year from 1976 until 1979, when the track closed and switched to NHRA.
Johnson cherishes his memories at IHRA and has often credited the series for allowing him to learn how to win. Johnson won 13 IHRA national events in 25 final rounds during his time on the tour.
His most monumental was the final event, the 1979 IHRA Winston Nationals. He beat Roy Hill in the final round of the event.
"That was one of those perfect storm races," Johnson recalled. "The guy that was the number one in points, coming in, he had to go out first round. The number two point had to go past second round, and I had to beat the third guy in the final."
Johnson wouldn't say his exposure to the northeastern Georgia drag racing was a culture shock from those he was accustomed to in Minnesota. Atlanta Dragway, in particular, was an up-close and personal experience with the grandstands only a few feet away from the action.
In some instances, a few brazen fans tried to feel the action, literally.
"They would do that," Johnson said. "Of course, they weren't sober at the time. Yeah, the IHRA races, those were a spectacle, if you will.
"Enthusiastic [fans], I can tell you that. Because they can basically race almost all year long, they can catch that addiction a lot easier. Up north, when you got a three-month racing season, it wasn't that popular up there as it was down here. That's part of the reason I moved down here because I knew I could race all year long, and there was a lot more enthusiasm for all forms of racing, really.
In many cases, though Johnson admits he wasn't into statistics at the time, the race fans were equally enthusiastic about their racing as much as they were their alcohol.
"I wasn't much into statistics at the time, but I would venture it was 50/50," Johnson said with a smile.
HUMBLE AS CAN BE - Winning a Top Fuel national event in only your first outing can have a profound effect on a rookie driver. Truth be told, Josh Hart didn't really know how to act in the days following his monumental victory at the NHRA Gatornationals.
"I just kinda hung out at the shop, tried to stay low-key and let it all simmer," Hart explained. "It had to settle in. It's still pretty surreal, and Gainesville was like a storybook, so going to be hard to top that, but we're going to try."
Hart said he never grew tired of the well-wishers offering congratulations.
"All the fans, and even the most of the drivers, were awesome," Hart said. "I'm very blessed and happy to be out here playing with the big boys."
Hart admits the toughest part of the experience was the television interview. In some ways, he admits it made him more nervous than pulling to the starting line for the final.
"I still get nervous when you turn and you see the fans," Hart said. "When it comes to racing, for some reason, as soon as they start the car, all that nervousness goes away from me."
Apparently, Hart didn't get the memo; somewhat of an ego is required to be a fuel racer.
"I've had the floor yanked out from underneath me before, so I know better," Hart said.
Life Hart, adds, is enough to keep him on an even keel.
"I think it's just life experience, to be honest with you," Hart said. "My wife and I built our business, and we've lost everything in the past and built it all right back up to what you see now, and I apply that same thought process to the race team. Stay humble, be kind to everybody, I believe in karma. Let's win some races and go some rounds."
For Hart, his day ended in the quarter-finals.
THE EVERYDAY LIFE - Top Fuel racer Shawn Langdon isn't ready to proclaim himself as a D.I.Y. home improvement kind of guy, but he is certainly stepping outside of his comfort zone in this post-Pandemic world.
"I've learned to be better in the last year or so with spending a little bit more time at home," Langdon said. "Just doing stuff around the house and yard work and stuff that I normally don't do because I'm on the road so much.
At first, the home projects were engaging. At third or fourth, not so much.
"It's refreshing until you do it a few times, and then you're like, 'All right, I want to get back on the road," Langdon said.
Langdon admits he did enjoy a slower pace of life, including more time at home.
"I got a chance to appreciate all things that I'm not really used to doing," Langdon explained. "In the last year or so, obviously, it was being at home so much and you just kind of learned to. I guess things that you really don't think about on the normal weekends that you're gone, you just kind of get done."
"Yeah. I mean, I don't know if I could handle a retirement yet. I don't think I could stay at home that much. It's different for sure. I think you just kind of get into modes, year after year being on the road so much, you just become accustomed to it. That when you get home, it's like, okay, what do I have to do today? You just have a whole different list of things to accomplish. It kind of gives you a different perspective on life a little bit."
Yeah, well ... cutting grass isn't something he's ready to do.
"I still pay someone for that," Langdon said. "I got 11 acres. I don't want to mow that".
THE PERSONALITY GAME - J.R. Todd drove his way to low elapsed time in Saturday's lone day of qualifying, and due in large part by knowing Atlanta Dragway's unique personality.
Todd ran a 3.982, 325.69 in the opening session to jump out early in qualifying. The second run was a 4.442.
"There were some pretty good bumps out there, and I felt; Ike I went over one of them and let the car get out of the groove to the right a little bit, and got the tire temperature hot and spun the tires," Todd said.
Even a novice drag racing can understand that bumps for a 320 mph race car are not conducive.
"It definitely upsets the car, man," Todd explained. "These things aren't built to go over bumps; there's no suspension or anything like that. Places like here and Bristol, tracks that got some character, they make it a challenge to get one of these beasts down the track, for sure.
Atlanta Dragway has nuances of its own.
"Everybody thinks every drag strip's the same, basically two lanes or four lanes that are straight and flat, but there's no two lanes in America ever the same, I can tell you that," Todd said. "Every track has its own characteristics, and some have a lot more character than others.
GEORGIA ALWAYS IN HIS MIND - If John Force was asked once about the final NHRA national event at Atlanta Dragway, he was asked a million times.
"I was at the last drag race at Lions [Drag Strip], and life moves on, and it'll move on from here," Force, the 16-time champion, said. "But when they talk about how bad I feel, I don't like it. I don't want to see it closed, but I also have 35 years of memories of fans, people, wins. Ashley won her first race here, and to me, it's not dead. We're just moving on, but the memories move on with us. That's how I feel about it."
Force admits he wasn't as sentimental early in his years when tracks closed down, and although he understood the magnitude of the situations at the time.
"Never really thought about it because in those days it was closing for a reason, railroad would coming through or a piping company that needed room, and they were right in the middle of the city and housing," Force said. "But now housing's closing us down. You drive out of here, you see a bunch of housing up the street, and I'm seeing that they may be building a big battery company here."
Force was there as well when another track which was vital in his career, closed down. Orange County International Raceway closed down in 1983.
"I still got the sign in my museum in Yorba Linda," Force admitted. "Somebody come in and thought I stole it. They sold it to me, but it's just memories. But you know, you got to move on. You can't live in that world. World changes. So, I'm having another birthday here next week. I'm still loving it. Still want to drive these cars. But I know one day I'll have to step out of the seat, but I got all those memories. And then I'm going to go on racing, and John Force will on racing, whether he drives or not. I'll go on racing, whether Atlanta's here or not. That just the fact."
Force, who won the race seven times in his storied career, said he wouldn't go as far as watching the track go away is like saying bye to an old friend.
"Whoa, maybe the track's gone, but now, if you die, that's permanent," Force said in deep thought. "I don't look at it like I do the death of an individual. I just don't. A lot of people are trying to say that. It ain't like a friend of mine died, and he's gone, but this track's going to be gone. I love it. I have so much respect for it, but time to move on. They're going to move on. We're going to move on, and we're in survival mode. Survival mode is what's in my head right now."
ALPHA AND OMEGA - Atlanta Dragway had already been in existence for 27 years by the time Top Fuel Rookie of the year Justin Ashley had even taken his first steps as a baby growing up on New York's Long Island. He's racing this weekend for the first and last time at the facility located outside of Atlanta, Ga.
The magnitude of the moment is not lost on the second-generation drag racer.
"The track's been around a long time, and this is really my first real significant race here in Atlanta Dragway," Ashley said. "Ironically, it happens to be the last one. But I think it resonates with me just because, first of all, I see the fans out in the stands. I know how much it means to them, but also just speaking to other teams, speaking to other drivers,
"I understand that the Southern Nationals have been here for a long time and how much this race actually means to people and the amazing races that have been here in the past and the memories that have been made."
Ashley admits it hasn't taken him long to notice the most significant difference between Atlanta Dragway and most other facilities on tour. One word - humidity.
"Yesterday, when we were here, I was going through my actions, going through the normal process," Ashley explained. "Then I thought everything was normal, but the time the end of the day came, I was absolutely wiped out. I thought, 'Man, what is that from?"
"The humidity is very tough out here. It's tough on me. It's tough on this team. And then you see it out there on the track when teams are trying to get down the track; when it's so humid out, it becomes a very tricky racetrack, and it's difficult to get down there. So you saw teams going too fast. You saw teams going too slow and teams just trying to figure out a way to get down the track. So you can definitely see how the humidity has a strong effect on the race this weekend."
In the final pair of Sunday's first round of Top Fuel eliminations, Ashley showed the humidity had very little effect on his dragster as the Mike Green-tuned Strutmasters.com team laid down low elapsed time of the event, a 3.746, 323.12.
FATHER'S LEGACY - Mark Whisnant was as proud as he could be. The former drag racer who now runs a successful drag racing apparel business had his father's 1972 Duster Pro Stock car on display at the NHRA Southern Nationals.
This race car was no replica; it was the real deal car rescued by noted race car restorer McGrath Keen.
"I'm so glad we got this thing done before this last race," Whisnant said. "We had such a history here. My dad raced from the first race here and to get this '72 Duster out here, to let some of the fans see it. Again, I'm sure some guys, old-timers, have been here and seen it go down the racetrack.
"I can't be any happier than the outcome of it. His legacy will live on in this. This is the only car that's ever been restored, of my dad's old cars. Hopefully, it'll be here for years to come."
While the elder Whisnant had already moved on to another car, the classic Mopar made many laps at neighboring tracks.
"This was the first Atlanta Race Cars Duster," Whisnant explained. "I was only four years old when the car was built. I do remember riding in that passenger seat a few times, coming back from getting a time ticket or a scale house."
"It was a dominant race car. One that I'm very proud of. And I'm sure my dad would be proud of what he's done with this thing, because none of his cars were ever restored."
Keen of Dublin, Ga., found the car in basket case condition in Kentucky. He was an older teenager when he first saw the car run.
"He was our local hero, and he won Division Two, and we actually ran a small block Vega against him," Keen explained. "We always thought we were going to outrun the car the next weekend, and we didn't know the power the Hemi created."
Keen runs Detroit Garage and has been restoring classic race cars for over three decades.
"There were a lot of things on this car that were unique," Keen said. "This was the pinnacle of our restorations, and we didn't really have a budget for this car.
Sunday's final day of racing at the track outside brought forth a special moment for Whisnant.
"I got to drive it up here [beside apparel trailer] and went through a lot of emotions," Whisnant admitted. "Just driving it up from the trailer. Man, we got a lot of history here. I've been down this race track a lot of times, testing and racing. To have this year for some of the old-timer fans to see it, that actually saw go down the racetrack, is significant, to be in the last race here in Georgia. Pretty significant."
GWYNN SHARES FOND MEMORIES OF ATLANTA DRAGWAY - Darrell Gwynn freely admits he made the trek from his South Florida home to Commerce, GA, for the 40th running of the NHRA Southern Nationals only because he wanted to take in the atmosphere of Atlanta Dragway one last time.
"I know times are changing, but I just wanted to see this place and these people one last time because I've been coming here since I was a kid. We've had a lot of fun here over the years and Commerce just brings back a lot of memories. We've been very competitive here for many years," said Gwynn, whose father, Jerry, won Top Alcohol Funny Car in 1981 at the inaugural NHRA Southern Nationals.
Gwynn himself won twice at the track slated for demolition and redevelopment later this year: in 1987 as a Top Fuel driver and again as a Top Fuel team owner in 2001 with Mike Dunn behind the wheel.
"It's sad to see it end," Gwynn said of the track originally built as an airstrip in 1975 and switched to IHRA sanction from 1976 through 1980.
"You know, coming here with my dad back in the '70s, the grandstands used to be right up against the race track and when my dad did a burnout in his double-A altered I really thought those fans were going to reach out and touch him. It was pretty cool."
LAUGHLIN 'HONORED' BY HOT WHEELS RELEASES - Alex Laughlin arrived for the 40th and final NHRA Southern Nationals focused on racing his Havoline-backed Pro Mod Camaro. Ultimately, Laughlin qualified 14th and fell in the opening round of competition to eventual race winner Justin Bond. Still, the Bluff Dale, TX-based driver remained upbeat on a second front.
On May 1, the day of qualifying for the Southern Nats, Mattel released its second Hot Wheels replica of one of Laughlin's raceday rides.
"It should be hitting stores by Monday morning," he said. "But for it to be a a car that has meant so much to me, you know, the Corvette that won Lights Out and whatnot, it's awesome just to see it made.
"And for it to be not only a Hot Wheels, but a premium car is even better. The premium is the $5 car in the bigger packaging and it's in the Hot Wheels Boulevard collection, which they say is based on a street that if it were a real road in America these would be the kind of cars that would drive up and down it.
"So this car has a metal body, metal chassis, rubber tires and a liftoff hood so you can see the motor and everything, where the mainline cars, the $1 cars, are usually a metal body with plastic chassis and wheels--but still the best toy value in the store, by a long shot."
Laughlin said development and production of his C7 Corvette drag car required more than two years, slowed down some because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the interim, a Hot Wheels mainline version of his NHRA Pro Stock Camaro has been available for several months.
"When I got started working with these guys back in 2018, we started talking about potentially recreating one of my cars and the one we really decided on was the Corvette, but they said it would be at least a two-year project," Laughlin explained.
"So with how long that was going to take, they decided for the interim that they already had a Pro Stock dye made and it's a car that they've recolored and used in several different scenarios, so it fit well and took only about 10 months to come out with that first car."
Laughlin said he feels "honored" to have his cars represented as Hot Wheels creations.
"At the end of the day everybody is a fan of Hot Wheels and everybody has always wanted, you know, one of their cars, their first car, a family car, something that means something to them to become a real-life Hot Wheels car. And that's what they've done for me."
CLAY MILLICAN ANNOUNCES PARTNERSHIP WITH WALMART AND SPONSORSHIP WITH MELLOW MUSHROOM PIZZA BAKERS - Busy is good, and veteran Top Fuel driver Clay Millican was plenty busy May 1.
The Stringer Performance driver announced Saturday he has formed a partnership with Walmart to allow fans the opportunity to get COVID-19 vaccinations at NHRA races beginning at the Southern Nationals May 1-2 in Atlanta.
The Walmart news for his team came just hours after Millican’s team announced it is partnering with Mellow Mushroom Pizza Bakers at this weekend’s 40th and final NHRA Southern Nationals at the historic Atlanta Dragway and the remainder of the season.
“It could not get a whole lot better to be honest with you,” Millican said. “The announcement we've been able to make this week – announcements – more than one, it's just been incredible. I love being super busy and this certainly makes you stay super busy, but I am fired up. Car ran good in Vegas, went to the final round and I don't see why we can't just keep that going.”
Millican acknowledged his was quite surprised how his team’s association with Walmart.
“That's a pretty amazing deal,” he said. “I mean it's so unbelievable that a company the size of Walmart saw a post that I made on social media and reached out. I couldn't believe that they wanted to come out here and be part of NHRA drag racing and for us to be able to partner up with them on our race car is just incredible.
“The opportunity for fans to get the vaccination is pretty awesome. There's a lot of people that haven't been able to get it done and they're here on site. For free, fans can get their vaccinations and then from that first one, they're able to schedule their second one. It is an incredible deal. It's not only about the vaccination but it's also an educational process, they've got licensed pharmacists over there, ask any kind of questions that you may have. And it's pretty crazy how big a program they put together in such a short time.”
Cole Burdett is one of the Walmart staff pharmacists at the Southern Nationals. He’s been with Walmart for about a year and practicing in pharmacy for nearly a decade.
“The backstory of it was actually calling Clay Millican,” Burdett said. “The driver posted to social media that he got his Covid vaccine, and he was really encouraging people to get it. We reached out to him and got a partnership and seeing if we can come out here (Saturday) and give some people some vaccines at the event just to promote it or even if people aren't getting the vaccine just talk to them. Answer any questions they have about the vaccine if they're hesitant and seeing if we can kind of persuade them in a way to see, if they would be more comfortable, getting it. We’re just out here giving vaccines and trying to get as many people as we can (Saturday).”
Millican explained how crew chief Jim Oberhofer did get his Covid-19 at the race.
“The process is really fast,” Millican said. “I actually, I had already been vaccinated, that's kind of how this process got started with Walmart, but Jim Oberhofer, super well-known crew chief hasn't had the time because he’s been so busy. And he's like, ‘man this is great!’ So, we had a little fun with Fox Sports 1 people (April 30) walking through the process of how quick it was. A little bit of paperwork, go see the pharmacist, go in their mobile wellness center, get a shot, come out, kind of wait a few minutes, make sure everything is good and you are done. That's an incredible opportunity for people who have had wait lines or had no opportunity to do it. Somebody like Jim O., who is traveling non-stop, it was just a great opportunity for him and the fans, there are probably a lot of them in the same position, be able to get their vaccinations.”
Millican is unsure how many races his team will partner with Walmart.
“That is all going to be based around the mobile wellness center,” Millican said. “Again, this happened really quick. They wanted to hit this market we're certainly going to continue working with Walmart. At the moment they haven't got their schedule mapped out for where the wellness center is moving to but we're going to continue to work for Walmart. We're going to continue promoting people getting vaccines and this is just a phenomenal opportunity. Not only for our team but for drag racing period. For Walmart to have chosen to be out here in drag racing, we're all Walmart shoppers.”
Burdett was encouraged by the early numbers at the mobile wellness center.
“Early on it was probably about 20, 30 people who stopped by and said, ‘hey.,” he said. “We've done about 10 vaccines so far now, so pretty good. We're hoping to do a little more though, obviously, but it was a good start for us.”
Burdett emphasized the mobile wellness center isn’t just a place for fans to get a Covid-19 vaccination.
“We want to educate as many people as we can possibly about the vaccine and its safety and efficiency and just kind of answer any questions, they have to resolve any doubts they have in their minds about it as well,” Burdett said.
“Some people have had some doubts about it but it's just going over and just answering their questions about what side effects they’re fearing. A lot of questions about the blood clots and stuff from the J&J and it’s kind of calming their minds about how that was just such a small population and what we're kind of looking out for now. We're aware of it. So that's been good. And then all the other people who have had family members have already gotten it, so they were kind of comfortable with it and just kind of wanted to know the process of how they can get one.”
Millican also made sure to take a moment to talk about his team’s deal with Mellow Mushroom Pizza.
“They’re going to be on for the rest of the year,” Millican said. “That's a cool deal. Everybody loves pizza. They’re such a unique brand. They've got good food and man, it's cool. I mean, we're sitting here right now, and I see the pizza trays are set up. I'm waiting on lunch right now; I cannot wait because it's such an awesome deal as well. It’s a cool brand and they’re got their own uniqueness about them. It's unique and it's good food, so it's hard to beat that.”
“Having Mellow Mushroom and their mission of providing delicious food in a fun and creative environment added with Clay and our professional race team takes me back to the good old days of drag racing when the Atlanta Dragway opened way back in the groovy culture of the 1970s,” team owner, Doug Stringer said in a press release.
Mellow Mushroom, which was founded in 1974 in Atlanta, is an originator of hand-tossed, stone-baked classic Southern pizza. For more than 40 years, Mellow Mushroom Pizza Bakers has been serving up fresh, stone-baked pizza to order in an eclectic, art-filled and family-friendly environment. Each Mellow is locally owned and operated and provides a unique feel focused around great customer service and high-quality food.
Millican knows the next step is translating all his team’s positive partnership news into results on the track.
“Well, that's totally up to us on the race team,” Millican said. “The race team is doing good. Last race out we were able to make our way to the final round and car is running good and strong and we’re just going to keep that rolling.” Tracy Renck
RECORD RUN PUTS POLLACHECK FIRST IN PSM QUALIFYING - With a track record 6.779-seconds pass at 199.20 mph, Scotty Pollacheck secured the number-one start in Pro Stock Motorcycle in round one of qualifying for the 40th-and-final NHRA Southernationals at Atlanta Dragway.
"You know, I was sitting there waiting to go and I saw Joey Gladstone go 6.78 and I heard the announcer say that was a new track record," the Oregon-based rider recalled.
"Then, as soon as I let the clutch out, I mean, that thing just took off like a rocket. So I could tell it was on a really good run right from the get-go and when I got down to the other end they told me I went .77 and right away Joey came over and he goes, 'You pimped me by a thousandth!' So, it was really neat to get that track record, but that's also a career best for us by a little bit."
Running side-by-side in the final pairing of the second and final qualifying session, Gladstone ran another 6.78 while Pollacheck retained the number-one start for Sunday's eliminations despite slowing slightly with a 6.81 effort.
"It's really good for Denzo to be at the top of the sheet with us and we also have Chip Lofton from Strutmasters here cheering us on, he's kind of like our lucky charm," Pollacheck said. "And I also really need to thank Livia Motorsports, some great friends of mine from back home that are helping us out this year."
ANDERSON QUALIFIES FIRST--AGAIN - For the third-straight time in as many events held so far this year, Greg Anderson finished on top of the qualifying list. The North Carolina-based Pro Stock star went 6.54 seconds at 210.41 mph in Saturday's opening session at Atlanta Dragway, then followed up with a 6.55 at 210.47 in his 2021 Camaro to close out qualifying for the 40th and final NHRA Southernationals.
"We can't wait to lock horns (in eliminations) tomorrow. We know we've got five great Chevys here that'll run good and have five great chances to win," Anderson said of teammates Kyle Koretsky and Dallas Glenn, for whom he serves as head tuner, plus associates Matt Hartford and Derek Kramer who tune their own machines.
"They share, we share, we look at each other's runs and then talk about what we want to do," he continued. "You definitely learn both ways. What's right, what's wrong. So that's good. And even though we've only got two qualifying sessions here, we've got five cracks at it with five cars. So it's still a lot to learn."
Following Anderson on the qualifying list was Kramer at 6.55 and 210.21 mph, Aaron Stanfield, reigning class champ Erica Enders, and Chris McGaha rounding out the top five.
Anderson, a four-time NHRA Pro Stock champion, said he's been coming to Atlanta Dragway since the early 1990s when he served as crew chief for Pro Stock legend Warren Johnson and it makes him sad to see a track he once considered "home" about to be sold, torn up, and slated for industrial and/or housing development.
"It didn't really add up 'til I drove in this morning and was thinking this is the last time I'm going to be here. That's it. And I'm trying to picture what this place is going to become other than the drag strip I've known all my life," he said.
"So it's sad for me. Disappointing obviously because it was my home track for a lot of years and I've had a lot of success here and a lot of memories. So it's a bummer, it's an absolute bummer.
"So the only thing I can do to try and make that memory be a little better is find a way to win this weekend and have the last victory at this facility," Anderson added. "So that's the goal; that's the plan; that's the hope. We'll see if I can pull it off or not, but we're off to a good start at least."
BALOOSHI BEST IN PRO MOD QUALIFYING - Dubai's Khalid al Balooshi knocked four-thousandths off his elapsed time from Friday's lone Pro Mod qualifying session and added 14-thousandths to his speed Saturday afternoon at Atlanta Dragway with a 5.713 at 250.37-mph pass that secured the number-one start and sole possession of the track ET record after tying it in round one. Balooshi will face off against 16th-place starter Justin Jones in the opening round of eliminations on Sunday.
Following Balooshi at the top of the 16-car list was Jose Gonzalez after going 5.72 at 249.39 in another Procharger-equipped, late-model Camaro, Canadian racer Justin Bond at 5.74 and 248.02 in a unique-to-the-class '68 Firebird, two-time defending class champ and fan-favorite "Stevie Fast" Jackson at 5.75 and a class-leading 251.63 mph, and New York-based Mike Castellana at 5.76 and 248.80 in his roots-blown '17 Camaro.
SLIPPERY SITUATION FOR BARNETT - Immediately off the hit for his burnout in round two of Pro Mod qualifying, Gastonia, NC's Lyle Barnett had his hands full. A small fitting on an oil line failed as soon as the engine in Barnett's 2018 Camaro began building boost and spewed oil all over the starting area and under the car's big rear slicks.
"You know, these things are at 3,000-plus horsepower and even though we're not moving very fast, in the burnout box, the tires are moving very fast," Barnett explained. "So even when I stepped out of the throttle that thing's still got boost and some RPM to it and the tires when they were in that oil they didn't grab the racetrack like they normally do at the end of the burnout.
"Usually, when you hear one of these big-tire cars do a burnout, when it gets to the end you hear a little chirp when the tires grab. Well, this thing was in its own oil so the tires were still moving at a very high rate of speed, and whether it's the contour of the racetrack or just maybe one tire had a little more grip than the other, the car set out and of course headed right towards the wall, and when that happens you just got to back out of it, stay off the brakes a little bit, and kind of let it do its thing. And then it settled down and I was able to keep it off the wall."
Even the NHRA P.A. announcers were left impressed, telling the sold-out crowd at Atlanta Dragway to appreciate the great job Barnett had done to avoid any further damage to his ride, allowing it to remain qualified 12th and set to race fifth-place starter Mike Castellana when eliminations begin.
"The plus side is that it didn't happen at 250 miles an hour. I was able to gather it up, but it did cause a pretty extensive cleanup, which I do apologize to all my fellow competitors for that," Barnett added.
"So we're not necessarily down, not necessarily disappointed, we obviously wish we would have ran better and could have got in the top half (of the field), but we've got a fast hot rod and I think we're going to have something for them on Sunday."
SCRAPPERS RACING BACK AFTER COVID-19 SCARE - Top Fuel driver Mike Salinas and the Scrappers Racing team returned to the race track after missing the Las Vegas event because of a Covid-19 scare.
Coronavirus ravaged the Salinas family, and they simply weren't able to make the Vegas race. Salinas, wife Monica and three of his four daughters, Jasmine, Jianna and Janae, all contracted the virus. All, fortunately, have recovered.
"The whole family got Covid," Salinas said. "The whole family. ... All of us were in bed for three weeks. Then the one daughter that didn't come (to Gainesville – Jacqueline), didn't get sick, of course. It kicked our butts and we were literally in bed. So this is our seventh week and I'm at a hundred percent now, but last week and the week before (we were) still slow, it just kicked our butts. … Crazy stuff, crazy stuff."
Salinas believes someone in the family first contracted the virus at a restaurant in Gainesville, and it spread quickly through the family.
Salinas still plans to contend for the Top Fuel championship this year despite missing a race. He lost in the first round at Gainesville but still sits 12th in the points standings.
"We're ready to go," Salinas said. "We're gonna go do them all. We didn't plan to miss any, that one just kicked our butt. So I think we'll be good."
Scrappers Racing is a multi-class team in NHRA, fielding vehicles in Top Fuel, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Pro Mod and Top Alcohol Dragster.
Jianna Salinas failed to qualify in Gainesville on her Pro Stock Motorcycle and came up short in Atlanta, too. Mike Salinas said he's preparing a Pro Mod to race in Charlotte in two weeks. Plus, the team will be testing a new Richie Crampton built-Top Alcohol Dragster for Jasmine Salinas.
"We gotta bring the bike program up," Mike Salinas said. "The Pro Mod will be out at Charlotte so I'll be in the Pro Mod at Charlotte also. Steve Petty and Eric Dillard and those guys, they’re running my program for me.
"We had an incident with Jasmine over in Gainesville, but we have a brand-new car from Richie Crampton. Aerodyne jumped in, Richie Crampton, we had some other help from some other vendors that came in and redesigned stuff in the cockpit for safety and all that. So that car is ready. … The McPhillips are leaving here, they're going to the shop in Indy and we'll have it ready for Charlotte. We’ll be testing on that Monday."
DID TODD, KALITTA MOTORSPORTS MISS JON O? -Todd Smith served as the lone crew chief for J.R. Todd's Kalitta Motorsports Funny Car on Saturday, as his co-crew chief, Jon Oberhofer, was attending a special college graduation.
"Just a little busy today," Smith said. "Jon O's oldest daughter graduated college today, so he couldn't be here today. I'm just pulling double-duty."
Oberhofer planned to fly to Atlanta later Saturday and resume his duties with the Todd team. But Todd joked about Oberhofer's presence Saturday, especially after he was low of the first qualifying session.
"I had no idea that he wasn't even coming until I got here yesterday," Todd said. "He kind of forgot to tell everybody, but I mean, he's on his way here now so there's a chance he'll be here for Q2. But yeah, it's just a little different with the crew guys. A couple guys doing different routines on the car when he's not here.
"It's a little odd having Todd out there pull you into the lights and not Jon O. But the car ran well with him not being here, so we might tell him to stay home now."
FATHERHOOD HAS BEEN SPECIAL FOR TORRENCE - Torrence, the three-time Top Fuel champion, became a father for the first time last month and is enjoying every moment of fatherhood. Well, almost every moment. Haven Charli Torrence was born April 7 to Steve and Natalie Torrence.
"She’s doing wonderful," Steve Torrence said. "She's here, mom's here, Charli's mom Nat is here. Everything is great. It's been some sleepless nights, moreso for Nat than me. I kind of moved rooms, getting up and going to work at 5:30 in the morning. Usually no sleep is pretty taxing on that.
"We'll see how tomorrow goes, but I would say that my little girl’s been lucky so far. We got her up before Vegas and we've ran well with it with her being around. So, I mean it's exciting.
"But there's no way to describe the feeling (of being a parent). I mean, it's just indescribable and you don't know what you don't know. So it's been really special."
BALOOSHI TIES TRACK RECORD IN PRO MOD QUALIFYING - Mike Castellana and "Stevie Fast" Jackson each took turns leading the opening round of Pro Mod qualifying for the 40th annual--and final--NHRA Southernationals, but in the second-last pair down the track Friday night at Atlanta Dragway, Khalid al Balooshi tied the track ET record with a 5.71-seconds blast at 250.23 mph.
"Yeah, I feel the car hook and get down on the tires and lift the front end, so I know it's going to be good," the Dubai-based racer said.
Balooshi credited hard work away from the track on his Procharger-equipped 2019 Camaro for his team's strong showing straight out of the truck.
"We work hard," he declared. "We've been working hard for a month and we went testing twice, but let's be honest, I give big credit for the boys putting this deal together.
"We started from scratch. It's not a new car, but it's a new combination starting from different rear-end, different transmission ratios, different engine that everybody worked on and it gives us a badass combination. So Alan Johnson, Proline, M&M torque converters, PRS shocks, and especially my crew chief, Brad Personett, all my crew guys, they all work so hard to get the performance we've seen here and it all started from scratch."