2021 NHRA U.S. NATIONALS - FUNNY CAR NOTEBOOK
WILKERSON COLLECTS SECOND U.S. NATIONALS VICTORY 18 YEARS LATER - Talk about making your fans wait for an encore.
It has been nearly 18 years to the day since Tim Wilkerson last went to victory lane at the sport’s biggest race, last winning the U.S. Nationals back in 2003.
That day, Wilkerson upset Johnny Gray and a who’s who of Funny Car stars including names such as Skuza, Cannon and Scelzi to earn his second career national event victory. Since that day, his fans - affectionately known as Wilk’s Warriors - have been solidly behind the popular independent owner, tuner and driver, and have been waiting for a repeat of that win ever since.
On Sunday, Wilkerson delivered in a big way.
“I do have a great group of fans, there is no doubt about that,” Wilkerson said. “I was in the finals here in ‘97, ‘03 and ‘12. This place loves me, it really does. I usually run well here, and I have run a lot of races here. This place and I, we have a good relationship. It always treats me well and it did again this weekend.”
Wilkerson recorded a win for the ages Sunday at the Dodge SRT NHRA U.S. Nationals, overcoming a tricky track and another gauntlet of Funny Car competitors to collect his 21st career Camping World Drag Racing Series victory at Lucas Oil Raceway.
It was also Wilkerson’s first overall win since April of 2016, as he has recorded nine runner-up finishes since his last win five years ago.
“I couldn’t get that monkey off my back. Then we come to Indy and I blew that son of a buck right off my back and right under the back of the parachutes,” an elated Wilkerson said. “I am so tickled. To win the Big Go a second time, you can’t say anything else besides that.
“My guys are who I am happy for. Most of the guys on this team, besides Richard (Hartman), had never won a race, period. These guys are all new for me. That is what really makes me happy. We’ve been to so many finals with all of these kids and I couldn’t get that monkey off my back. Today, I threw the crap at the wall and, as they say, it stuck.”
Wilkerson joins an elite list of competitors that have won the U.S. Nationals more than once, earning that victory in a thriller against Ron Capps. With Capps looking for his own history on Sunday by earning his first-ever win at the Big Go, it was a battle of Funny Car titans on a bright, sunny afternoon in Indianapolis.
In that final round matchup, Capps got away first, but Wilkerson made up the difference by the Christmas tree and never trailed again for the win. Wilkerson recorded a 3.912-second pass at 320.36 mph in his Levi, Ray & Shoup Ford Mustang Funny Car, saving his best elapsed time of the weekend for the final.
Capps meanwhile crossed the stripe just behind his opponent with a 3.946 at 326.63 mph piloting his Napa Auto Parts Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Funny Car. It was Capps’ second-ever final round visit at the U.S. Nationals, last finishing as the runner-up in 2017.
“Capps has used me up the last two or three years. We have run a few times in the finals and he has whooped me every time,” Wilkerson said. “I told the guys (after the semifinal), ‘Guido (Dean Antonelli) just went 90 flat with Capps. They had better go 90 flat again because they ain’t ready for us.’
“We were lucky. You are in the finals and you know what NHRA is going to do (to the track). They have bit me before by tuning that track up before the final and this time I told Richard, ‘we are going to plan on that thing being great.’ I ran that thing like I was trying to run a night run. I parked it in the middle and you saw what it did.”
Wilkerson also had to overcome a slew of engine issues on Sunday, putting multiple motors in the car over the course of the weekend, including during the one-hour turnaround between the semifinals and finals.
“I am pretty proud of my guys,” Wilkerson said. “We had a lot of adversity and we put three motors in that car. We had an oil pump malfunction in the semis and it had no oil pressure from two seconds clean to the end. I don’t know how it didn’t break.”
The other theme throughout Sunday’s final eliminations was the difficulty of the track itself.
After rain washed out all on-track activities on Saturday, the track was green and when the heavier, more powerful nitro cars got a shot at it for the first time on Sunday, several teams lost traction and were unable to make a full pull. But as the afternoon progressed, the NHRA Safety Safari went to work and got both lanes working in proper order when it mattered most.
“NHRA did a great job on that right lane,” Wilkerson said. “It was pretty beat up this morning and I just went 91 down that lane. So great job everybody.”
Wilkerson reached his first final round since Gainesville in 2020 with an afternoon of consistent passes in wins over Bobby Bode, John Force and Cruz Pedregon.
The only blemish on that record was a round-one victory over 19-year-old Bode, as Wilkerson overcame a loss of traction and dropped cylinders to record a round win with a less-than-stellar 4.611 at 218.72 mph.
He then found his groove in a round two win over a Force, as the 16-time champion overpowered the track while Wilkerson cruised to a 3.974 at 297.81 mph. In the semifinal it was much of the same as Pedregon lost traction at the hit and Wilkerson powered to a 3.984 at 325.37 mph to reach his first final round of the year.
“I think everybody threw up against us except for Capps, and we had to whoop him. And we were lucky enough to do that,” Wilkerson said. “We were also lucky to win in that right lane against Cruz. I think those guys know now that you don’t go up there and just waddle down the track. (Pedregon) went 92 that last round and if they had done that again, they would have won the round. I think they stepped on it a little bit. That track is a little bit tricky in the middle, especially in the semis. That is always the worst it is going to be and I drug that thing back a little bit for that run. That wasn’t going to happen in the finals.”
Capps reached his third final round of the season with an afternoon of solid runs in the 3.90s. In fact, he was the only driver to consistently get down the track each time.
Capps collected wins over Justin Schriefer, Robert Hight and Alexis DeJoria to propel him into his second-career final round at the U.S. Nationals. He advanced past both of his tire-smoking first round opponents with passes of 3.903 and 3.952, before finally finding a race in the semifinals.
It wasn’t until the semifinal round that fans saw their first side-by-side nitro race under power. In that matchup, DeJoria had a slight reaction time advantage, but Capps made up that difference by the Christmas tree and cruised to the win with a 3.909 at 327.74 mph. DeJoria had a 3.992 at 323.04 mph.
Adding to the joy of Sunday’s victory were the obstacles Wilkerson’s team has had to overcome over the past few years. A smaller, independent team, Wilkerson has had his share of misfortunes over the years, which makes his win in Indy all that much sweeter.
“I go to each race with a 24 hour rule. After 24 hours, if we win or lose, it doesn’t matter anymore,” Wilkerson said. “I just go up there and try to run my car and not worry about what is going on around me. My guys do such a terrific job. I am 99 percent of the problem. If anything goes wrong, it is usually my fault. Our car very rarely does anything wrong.”
One of those errors took place earlier this year when Wilkerson had an on-track run-in with Pedregon in Topeka. That incident tore up the body on Wilkerson’s Mustang Funny Car, which left the team scrambling coming into this weekend.
“We were almost financially devastated from all of that. That body that I ran into Cruz with was brand new. It had two runs and I junked it,” Wilkerson said. “This is the car that I crashed when I ran into Cruz. We picked that thing up last Tuesday and spent all day Tuesday and half the day on Wednesday putting it together and then drove here Thursday morning.
“We are not a rich team. I try not to harp on that, but we have one Ford Mustang body left. One stinking body. And that body just won the U.S. Nationals.”
With his first win in five years in the books, and a ticket to the Countdown to the Championship that goes along with it, Wilkerson now shifts his focus from winning Indy, to winning it all. After all, if this team can win the biggest drag race in the world, why can’t it win a championship?
“We have a good car. I am never worried about that. Every weekend I say to myself, ‘here is the lane I’ve got. Here is the temperature. How fast can I go.’ That is all I care about,” Wilkerson said. “Now that my guys have got a taste of winning, they are ready now. They are pumped.”
THAT’S A WASH - There was a solid, heartfelt effort by the NHRA to get in some racing on Saturday with weather on the way, but this time Mother Nature won out.
Professional qualifying was moved up to noon to try and avoid the afternoon showers, but rain moved into the area just past 11 a.m. and persisted throughout the afternoon. Just past 8 p.m. Saturday evening, the NHRA officially called racing action at the Dodge SRT NHRA U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway.
John Force earns his 162nd career pole position after racing to a 3.877-second pass at 330.72 mph under the lights Friday night. He is followed by Bob Tasca who ran a 3.889 at 332.67 mph and Robert Hight who had 3.889 at 329.67 mph. Cruz Pedregon and J.R. Todd rounded out the top five entering Sunday.
The biggest news to come from Saturday’s washout was that Tommy Johnson Jr., filling in for NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series point leader Matt Hagan after he tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday, will not be a part of the field. The team pulled up to the line, but were shut off after discovering a broken wheelie bar pin. The team did not get in a run this weekend.
The first round matchups on Sunday see John Force vs. Dave Richards, Bob Tasca vs. Paul Lee, Robert Hight vs. Dale Creasy Jr., Cruz Pedregon vs. Terry Haddock, J.R. Todd vs. Jim Campbell, Ron Capps vs. Justin Shriefer, Alexis DeJoria vs. Blake Alexander and Tim Wilkerson vs. Bobby Bode.
TIMELESS JOHN FORCE TALKS CANDIDLY ABOUT COVID AND HIS LEGACY - About an hour before the first nitro car fired in the waterbox Friday night at the Dodge SRT NHRA U.S. Nationals, news of a prominent racer testing positive for COVID-19 began to circulate through the pit area and press box.
Then came word from the announcer. That driver was Matt Hagan.
Hagan, the current Camping World Drag Racing Series point leader in Funny Car, was pulled from his Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Redeye Funny Car earlier in the day when he tested positive for the illness. Thankfully, according to his Don Schumacher Racing team, Hagan had not been in contact with anyone since his diagnosis, and is currently quarantining. In his place, familiar DSR driver Tommy Johnson Jr. filled in this weekend.
As word of Hagan’s positive diagnosis began making its way through the staging lanes and drivers began to talk, it hit one driver in particular pretty hard. A driver who, to this point, has felt pretty invincible in his racing career.
“I’m terrified of COVID,” said 16-time NHRA Funny Car world champion John Force. “I’m trying to keep my weight down. I had to stop drinking again. I quit for two years and then I drank a little bit of wine and that really gets you right back in the action. I really don’t want to get this COVID.
“An old guy like me, I’ve got to stay healthy. I’ve got to keep my weight down. I’ve got to work out. (Hagan) is a hulk. Even though I call him Teddy Bear, I still worry about him.”
Moments after learning of Hagan’s positive test, Force climbed in his PEAK Chevrolet Camaro SS Funny Car and ran a 3.887-second pass at 330.72 mph, good enough for the provisional pole Friday night.
At the top end, Force specifically addressed Hagan and talked about how this weekend's race just won’t be the same without one of his primary competitors lining up alongside him throughout the weekend.
“I’ll be honest, this is the biggest race of them all. Everybody wants to win it. But it is not going to be the same because Hagan is not here,” Force said. “When you fight all year, you either want to lose to everybody at Indy or you want to beat everybody. And he is the guy right now. He was in the lead. It ain’t the same to me.”
Force then addressed Hagan directly in the camera, a unique moment of emotion from a pair that have had their fair share of verbal altercations through the years.
“You may not like me, but I love ya,” Force said. “I don’t want you to be sick. I told them that on TV. I don’t want you to be sick Hagan. I want you back out here with us. Sometimes people get sick and things go the wrong way. I’m scared to death of it. I’ve always got my mask with me and people are always like, ‘why are you wearing that’ and then the other side is like, ‘wear it all the time.’
“Let’s face it, it is all around us like the common cold. We are just going to have to go down that road and deal with it. I said he won’t believe what I said, he never believes what I say, but I love ya Hagan. You are a real racer to me.”
While Hagan is out and the overall feel of the race has changed, there still needs to be a winner at the U.S. Nationals.
And it is hard to peg anyone other than Force as the favorite this weekend. He is a five-time winner of the biggest drag race in the land. He is the winningest driver in 2021 with three victories. He won this race just two years ago.
And he has done it all with a revolving door of crew chiefs, crew members, and teammates. The only constant all these years later - Force himself.
“My racecar is like sex,” Force said with a laugh. “When you get to my age, you start forgetting how that works, but what I am saying is you just don’t forget how to drive a car. I could drive it blindfolded. When I go down there in the dark, I get so pumped up in the car. My guys wonder what is wrong with me.”
While Force has had the luxury of some of the greatest crew chiefs of all time calling the shots on his car - from Austin Coil to Jimmy Prock - Force is especially pleased with the job that current signal caller Danny Hood is doing. Hood, the son-in-law of Force, took charge of the team in 2020. Since then, Force has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance behind the wheel.
“Danny is a really smart guy. And smart is really important to understand what you are doing,” Force said. “A guy like me could never be a crew chief. First of all, I am too crazy across the board. I don’t think like most people do. I am very radical. Danny has good people with us. These guys are killer. They live for that car.”
Of course, with success, sometimes comes cockiness, a disease Force had to deal with two weeks ago in Brainerd. Coming into the weekend as the newly christened Funny Car point leader, Force found himself out in round one and tumbling down the standings to fourth.
“I screwed up in Brainerd. It was all my fault,” Force said. “I had the points lead and I was like, ‘I am going to show all of you now.’ I put the seat up and suddenly every run I am all over the track. I qualified and then I changed the seat and never went down the track again. I almost tipped over Sunday morning. My head was hitting the roll cage, my knee was hitting the steering wheel, and it was driving to the left every time. They had to put the whole car back together Monday morning and we ran well. I screwed up.”
As for Force himself, his newfound success on the track, including three wins in 2021 at Charlotte, Epping and less than a month ago in Topeka, has given him a new lease on life and reminds him daily why he loves this sport so much.
“I do it because I love it,” Force said. “I don’t want to sound corny, because a lot of people love it, but I really love it. I really love just getting in the car. Sometimes they say, ‘did you forget to drive?’ I do what I do because I am getting older. I am struggling with the Christmas tree. I go deep and do all that goofy shit and hope, with a little bit of luck, I might be there. I am not trying to fool anybody. I am 72 years old.”
And as Force wrapped up his interview in the tower Friday night, as his daughter Brittany stood in the doorway ready for her turn to speak to the media, the greatest driver in NHRA Funny Car history glanced at her and reminisced about his family legacy. A legacy that has seen all three of his daughters behind the wheel and hoisting trophies in the nitro classes through the years.
“That is my future right there,” Force said of daughter Brittany. “Courtney is down there with (Graham) Rahal. Ashley has boys on TV. She is the last of the samurai.”
LIVING LIKE A ROCKSTAR - On any given race weekend, you never know who you will see roaming the pits or standing on the starting line of an NHRA race.
One weekend it might be the lead singer of a popular rock band, and the next the star quarterback for a local NFL team.
It is one of the positive side effects of a sport that has a live experience unlike any other. Actors, athletes, and musicians are drawn to the National Hot Rod Association, looking to get a whiff of nitro and a taste of 11,000 horsepower, nitro-breathing machines.
And one of the drivers that always seems to find himself in the middle of those celebrity sightings is Ron Capps.
Capps has been entertaining some of the biggest names in the entertainment business for much of his career and was back at it again Friday night. Capps hosted NBA superstar and Indiana Pacers shooting guard Justin Holiday in his pits and on the starting lines Friday at the Dodge SRT NHRA U.S. Nationals and revelled in another opportunity to show off the sport to a newbie.
“Our PR person has been fun to work with because she has a lot of these social media influencers and a lot of celebrities that come out and hang with us. It is really fun for us,” Capps said. “Having Justin and his kids out with us was a thrill. You find out just how big of a car person he is. I was trying to put him in the car, but he never would have fit. His knees were as high as the steering wheel. But to see the excitement on his face being around something like this is pretty neat. To have an Indiana Pacer with us in this area was awesome. He is going to go back and brag to all of his teammates and everybody else that he plays with that he got to do this.”
And Holiday is far from the only celebrity Capps has hosted.
Capps has welcomed lead singers, MLB pitchers, and actors from every genre through the years, but it is the rock stars that really get his blood pumping.
“For me, it has always been a lot of the rock stars that I looked up to growing up that I became friends with,” Capps said. “James Hetfield, the guys from Motley Crue, the guys from Kiss, for me it is always somebody that has affected me in a good way. Whether it is a song that comes on when I am in the car getting ready that puts me in a good mood, or somebody that I have listened to for a long time.
“I have had a lot of actors, athletes and musicians out through the years and I love to reciprocate the feelings that they bring to me. There is nothing better on the planet than to take an actor or rock star or athlete out on the starting line behind an 11,000 horsepower Funny Car, especially at night.”
And it is those shared experiences that brings the most joy to Capps.
He vividly recalls going to the concerts of some of the musicians that have come out to NHRA race weekends, and Capps revels in the opportunity to share a similar adrenaline rush when those same individuals are behind his NAPA Dodge Charger SRT Funny Car when the light turns green.
“It is reversed. It is me when I was at their show and I am standing backstage with them telling them how badass that was,” Capps said. “It is the same thing. I can see in their faces the same emotions I had sitting in the grandstands watching them perform.”
One of the most exciting celebrities that Capps has had the pleasure of hosting at a race is San Diego Padres pitcher Trevor Hoffman.
“He is someone that I really looked up to being in the San Diego area. When Hells Bells would come on and he would come running out onto the field to close the game out, it just makes the hair stand up on your neck,” Capps said. “When we finally got to have Trevor out, the excitement I saw in his face was the same I had sitting and watching a Metallica show from the side of the stage. It is hard to describe.”
More than anything, Capps hopes to instill a memory in each individual that spends some time with him during a race weekend in the same way that specific songs from certain artists have stayed with him through the years.
“Music has always driven my life. Ask anybody to name their favorite song and they will tell you a moment in their life that comes to mind - good or bad - when that song comes on,” Capps said. “Music is huge that way and that is why I love to have those people with me in the pits and I am able to give them that same feeling. One day they might be traveling somewhere and look up on a television and Fox is on and there is drag racing. And right away, it is going to be like when I hear that song. They are going to see that car running on TV and right away they are going to have this experience and remember when they stood behind the car.
“A lot of those guys aren’t allowed to do this stuff. But they respect it. I promise you, our NHRA fans, when they see somebody out at a race, they are going to follow them and watch them play and perform.”
Capps himself will be looking to be a rock star this weekend as he continues the quest for his first victory at the prestigious U.S. Nationals. He made a good, safe run Friday night to get into the show with a 3.907 at 326.08 mph and he is excited knowing how much is left in the tank for Sunday.
“The car is running good. We were a little soft Friday night, but on purpose. And when I say soft, we were still only a few hundredths off, but with the chance of rain (Dean Antonelli) Guido was going to be a little cautious and make sure we got down the track,” Capps said. “With that being said, it wasn’t far off as safe as it was. And as much as we have left in this car from Friday night’s run, Guido and (John) Medlen are licking their chops.”
DREAMING BIG - Paul Lee still remembers his first ever trip to the drag strip.
An impressionable 12-year-old at the time, Lee vividly recalls watching a number of Funny Car stars doing long burnouts, popping the throttle, and powering down the track with header flames high above their metal and carbon fiber bodies. It was a scene he will never forget, and a large part of why he is in the sport today.
“I went to my first drag race when I was 12 years old at Atco Dragway right near my hometown in New Jersey. I went to see the Funny Cars and I saw ‘Jungle’ Jim Liberman do a full track burnout and back up at 70 miles per hour,” Lee said. “During his run, he even went off into the grass and beat the other guy in the lane. The crowd was standing room only and they were all going nuts. I have goosebumps just thinking about it because I remember it like it was yesterday. I said that is what I want to do. I want to drive a nitro Funny Car one day.”
And in the late 1980s, that dream finally came true.
Lee got into the sport in the ‘70s driving in the sportsman ranks before obtaining his Top Alcohol Funny Car license in 1988.
He competed successfully on the tour throughout the 1990s and 2000s, having his best year in 2004, winning three national events on his way to a national top 10 finish in the NHRA points.
The following year, Lee began to experiment with nitro.
Over the next few years, Lee competed on both the NHRA and IHRA national tours in Nitro Funny Car, leading to where he is today in the pits of the world’s largest drag race competing in Funny Car behind the wheel of his McLeod Racing / FTI Performance Dodge Charger.
And to this day, as he pulls into the staging lanes and sees a grandstand full of people, or when a child stands outside his pit area admiring the car, he remembers how he felt when he was that same kid dreaming big to be behind the wheel.
“When I see the kids here, I still think that way,” Lee said. “When I see the kids at the track, when the kids come up and want an autograph and want to see the racecar, I make it a point to bring them back to see the car and get a picture with it. I sign all the autographs. Because I was that kid. That was me when I was 12 years old. I know how they feel looking at me, wanting to be a racecar driver one day. And I make sure they know that if they want it badly enough, anything is possible.”
Of course, with the big dreams of competing in the big show, also comes the ups and downs of competing in one of the most demanding and unpredictable sports in the world.
Dreaming big himself of making the Countdown to the Championship and contending for a championship in 2021, Lee immediately found himself behind the eight ball, playing catchup following a disastrous season opener at Gainesville back in March.
“This year actually started off really bad at Gainesville. We just blew up everything in the trailer,” Lee said. “It was a horrendous start to the year and we have been behind ever since. We had to buy new blowers, which are different. Basically this whole year has been recovering from Gainesville.
“In fact, we just started to run good at Brainerd, but it is a little too late because we are not going to be in the Countdown. We have just struggled all year and we are trying to make the best of it.”
But with every dark cloud comes a silver lining.
After a year of struggles, Lee had his best outing of the year two weeks ago in Brainerd, qualifying fifth and going to the quarterfinals where he lost on a holeshot to Matt Hagan.
While a shot at a championship is gone, Lee and his team at least has an opportunity to close the year on a positive note and build on that momentum from Brainerd. And what better place to do that than the biggest drag race of them all.
Lee qualified 15th for Sunday’s eliminations and will face Bob Tasca in round one.
“You are only as good as your last race. My old crew chief in alcohol cars Steve Boggs told me that a long time ago. You are only as good as your last race and last run and I always remember that,” Lee said. “Our last race was Brainerd and we actually did pretty good. I didn’t do my job as a driver, I got beat on a holeshot in the second round, but the car ran great. So the guys did give me a car, I just didn’t do my job. As far as the performance, we finally have it where we wanted to be from last year in Brainerd and we are hoping to carry that over to this weekend.”
BIG SHOES TO FILL - Tommy Johnson Jr. came to this weekend’s Dodge SRT NHRA U.S. Nationals as a fan.
He had his tickets in hand and had already pledged to help one of his buddies, Tripp Tatum, back up his dragster in the Top Fuel ranks. Despite being a regular competitor at this race for much of the past few decades, Johnson was comfortable being at the race solely as a spectator and was looking forward to watching all of his old nitro buddies duke it out on the big stage.
And then his phone rang.
“About 5:30 p.m. (Friday), Dickie (Venables) called and said he wanted to know if I could drive their car,” Johnson recalled. “I said, ‘sure’ and he told me to go get my stuff, we are going to run tonight. Suddenly I thought to myself, ‘you mean in just a little bit?’ I hustled home and grabbed all of my stuff and was back out here in about 30 minutes. About 45 minutes after taking that call I was in the car warming it up.”
The car, of course, is that of NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series points leader Matt Hagan, who tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday at the Dodge SRT NHRA U.S. Nationals and was forced onto the sidelines by his team.
Needing to fill the seat of the Dodge SRT Hellcat Redeye Funny Car on the biggest stage of them all, Don Schumacher Racing was comfortable leaning on former DSR driver Johnson who piloted the Make-A-Wish Foundation Funny Car for many years with the team.
After losing his ride at the end of last year due to lack of sponsorship, Johnson was a free agent this weekend. At least for a little while.
“I had come out this weekend to help a buddy of mine, Tripp Tatum, who was making his first race,” Johnson said. “I have been helping him and I was actually going to back him up last night and after the phone call, I yelled at him and said, ‘find somebody else to back you up, I am going to go get my helmet.’”
Being the veteran that he is, with 22 nitro victories to his name, Johnson was comfortable immediately getting behind the wheel, though he still faced some jitters when he fired the car up for the first time.
“I honestly don’t know if it was better or worse how quickly this all came together. There wasn’t any time to think about anything. At first, there were a lot of emotions. You are excited, then you get a little nervous,” Johnson said. “You think, this is going to be a little tough because I haven’t driven in a while and it is not my car, but then you think, it is not that big of a deal. You fall right back into instinct.
“The cars are a little different when it is not something you’ve been accustomed to. Things are always a little different when you go from one car to another, but you make the adjustments and you deal with it and move on. Once the engine starts, you kind of forget about all of that. You do what you naturally would do.
“When we pulled into the staging lanes (Friday) night, it felt like I had been here all week. It put me more at ease. When I got strapped in, I was actually very comfortable and excited because it felt normal.”
Of course, adding to the pressure this weekend was a unique NHRA rule instituted last year that allows for a driver filling in for another competitor who is out due to circumstances such as COVID to earn points for the original driver. That means that every point that Johnson would have earned this weekend would have directly been attributed to Hagan, the Funny Car points leader coming into the U.S. Nationals.
But as Johnson fired up his machine Friday night and pulled into the beams, crew chief Dickie Venables gave the command to shut it off due to the tiniest of errors.
“The wheel bar pin broke,” a frustrated Johnson said. “It is something that never breaks. I hate it for them because they went through all of this work to make this happen and then something little like that happens. When Dickie said to shut it off, I said, ‘really? Are you sure?’
“It is just one of those things that happens. It would have happened if Matt was driving it. It was just a freak thing.”
Unfortunately, with Saturday’s action being washed out, that one attempt to qualify was all that Johnson got, officially leaving the team leading the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series Funny Car points out of competition on Sunday.
“It is rare and unforeseen circumstances that you have no control over, so we tried to go out and enjoy it,” Johnson said. “We had another shot to go and win Indy, but it wasn’t in the cards this weekend.”
BREAKING BARRIERS - Drag racing has always been a sport about breaking barriers.
Whether a barrier on the track, with a record for speed or elapsed time, or a barrier off the track, with so many different groups represented in the pits, the sport of drag racing has always been on the forefront of diversity and inclusion.
But one group that has not been a part of that conversation - at least not yet - is the LGBTQ community. And Travis Shumake hopes to change that.
A second-generation racer and the son of former NHRA Funny Car competitor Tripp Shumake, Travis is hoping to break into the sport next year. He has obtained his Super Comp and Nostalgia Nitro Funny Car license through the Frank Hawley Drag Racing School and he will be going for his Nitro Funny Car license later this year in Dallas driving Del Worsham’s car.
“My dad raced Funny Cars in the 70s and 80s and I have known I wanted to do this my whole life,” Shumake said. “Earlier this year I decided to put pen to paper and, with some encouragement from some friends in the sport, I decided to make this a thing and start licensing. I have been shooting out some sponsorship decks and things are starting to gain some traction for next year.
“My hope is to run at Pomona. My dad won there 40 years ago and I thought that would be a cool first race. Hopefully after that I can be at as many races as possible, money permitting.”
Although Shumake’s father won only two NHRA national events in his career, he was a beloved figure in the pit area. He earned national fame in the late 1970s and early 1980s as the driver of Johnny Loper’s Loper’s Performance Funny Car. He appeared in three Funny Car finals and won two, at the 1981 Southern Nationals and the 1982 World Finals.
Tripp Shumake lost his life in 1999 when he was killed by a wrong-way, hit-and-run driver while riding his Harley-Davidson motorcycle near his Chandler, Arizona, home.
“One of my goals is to reconnect with my father. I was five the last time he raced and I remember going to the Motorplex and watching him and in Pomona,” Shumake said. “I never got to live that life. That was always my mom and my sister’s thing. I had a different version of racing with my dad. For me, it is learning more about the guy I only knew for 15 years. And it has already paid off with the relationships and stories I have gained at the track.
“I really want to continue that legacy. I think my dad didn’t get a fair shot at a full career and it ended a bit early because he didn’t always get out of the gas and blew up a lot of expensive parts.”
Shumake’s other motivation, outside of being competitive, is acting as a representative of the LGBTQ community in the sport of drag racing.
“I didn’t think this was a dream that could really happen because of my orientation. It sounds silly, but not really since it has not been done,” Shumake said. “There are a lot of young people in the world, whether they identify as LGBTQ or whatatever, they see that there is a closed door feeling to motorsports because there isn’t anybody that they can resonate with. I have an opportunity to provide that comfort and get people interested in our sport.
“I think of this as our sport. I have been around it my whole life. Being in Indy for three days and going through this process for six months, I feel extremely welcomed and accepted by this sport and I want others to feel that way. I also want to beat NASCAR to it. We are the diversity leader and allowing the next generation to see themself in the sport means the world to me.”
Of course, the biggest hurdle to Shumake in the sport has nothing to do with his personal identity. It is the fact that he is 6-foot-4 and would qualify as one of the tallest nitro drivers the sport has ever seen.
“It is going to be a tough squeeze no matter what,” Shumake said. “It really limits the safety equipment I can wear. Me and a standard helmet will not fit into a Funny Car properly. I had to get my own firesuit for licensing because you would have had two inches of Travis hanging out of Del Worsham’s firesuit if I wore his. They measured me twice and said this is the longest sleeve they had ever personally made. I am a normal sized guy, but the height is going to be interesting.”
And, of course, there is also the decision to get into NHRA’s toughest professional category during a time that the class is experiencing one of its most competitive periods.
“I am trying to get into the most competitive pro class at the moment,” Shumake said. “Everytime I meet with someone, they say, ‘are you sure you don’t want to drive a dragster?’”
NHRA SUPER BOWL - In the National Football League, a player or team can’t just show up and play in the Super Bowl.
The same goes for the World Series in baseball, the NBA Finals in basketball, or pretty much any sport that has a big, premier event.
In drag racing, it is a little bit different.
The Dodge SRT NHRA U.S. Nationals, which has been a part of the NHRA calendar since 1961, is widely considered the Super Bowl of drag racing. It is the biggest race of the season. The most prestigious. The highest paying.
It is known by three words - the Big Go.
And one thing that makes drag racing so unique, is that any team, any driver with the equipment, funding, and crew to be competitive, can pack up their car and head to Brownsburg, Indiana, every summer and compete with the biggest names in the sport.
Essentially, anyone can pack up and choose to play in the NHRA’s Super Bowl, including a small team like that of Dale Creasy Jr.
“Indy is Indy,” Creasy said. “It is the one race that everyone wants to run. For a while we didn’t come. The car was fast, but there were so many days, so much running expense, it was just one of those situations where you have to make a call. And the past few years we have made the call to come here.”
Competing at the NHRA’s most prestigious event is one thing, excelling at the race is another.
And that is another thing that makes a race like this so unique. It gives underfunded, underdog teams a chance to be successful and show their stuff on the biggest stage.
Last year, after squeaking into the field in 16th, Creasy had a tremendous round one upset of Tommy Johnson Jr. with a 4.009-seocnd pass at 315.64 mph, the best of Creasy’s NHRA career. One round later, be bettered that with a 4.000 at 315.78 mph, but lost to eventual event runner-up J.R. Todd.
It was a weekend he won’t soon forget.
“We came here last year as one of the few races we go to and ended up doing pretty well,” Creasy said. “We won our first round in over 10 years last year and ran our career best two runs in a row. It was quite an accomplishment.”
This year, Creasy has a new challenge facing him as his team recently switched to a six-disc system in his nitro-powered Funny Car, something a number of teams have gone to over the past few years. While the team struggled with it initially, they are starting to understand the intricacies of the new system and look forward to when it all finally comes together.
“We had been thinking about it for a while. It is the wave of the future and a lot of guys have already switched,” Creasy said. “We did it right after Norwalk. We made a few runs there. We made a few runs at Brainerd. We ran at Cordova. It is moving in the right direction, we just have to learn how to make calls on it. It is a whole different animal than the other one.
“Just learning how much weight it needs. How to apply it. It has 20 percent more application with another disc. The fuel system is a little different because, in the middle of the run, the five disc would pull a motor down. This one doesn’t. It is nothing big, just little things like that. It will just take runs and we are getting there.”
Creasy showed that the team is improving with the new setup. He ran a 4.03 in Brainerd with a cylinder out from halftrack on, showing that there are numbers there to be found.
And that is where having the help of other teams in the pits comes into play.
“We try to pattern our car after (John) Force’s car so if I need help I can say we did this, we did that, and they can help us,” Creasy said. “If you don’t have the same parts, they can help, but not as well. Thanks to those guys we are moving in the right direction.
“If it goes down the track, it will run well. I just have to make sure the driver does his job. We are going to get there.”
DEJA JORIA - You never forget your first time.
Your first win, of course.
Whenever Alexis DeJoria pulls through the gates at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis, she can’t help but have a sense of deja vu as memories come flooding back to her victory at the U.S. Nationals back in 2014. As a young, up-and-comer, DeJoria went four life-changing rounds on a Monday afternoon to earn her first Wally at the biggest drag race of them all, besting the king of Funny Car John Force in the final.
Of course, with those memories, comes the realization that that win was seven years ago. And she is ready to win again.
“The memories do come back. That definitely will be my favorite race for a while. It is my best memory so far,” DeJoria said. “But you are only as good as your last race. And we haven't won in a while.”
DeJoria is one of eight drivers mathematically eligible for the regular season Funny Car crown this weekend behind the wheel of her ROKIT/ABK Beer Toyota Camry. She came into this weekend seventh in the championship standings, but is the only driver among the top eight in points without a win this year.
She has been competitive, reaching the semifinals three times with one runner-up finish this season back in Denver, but it has now been nearly four years since her last win. Of course, in the middle of that drought, DeJoria took some time off from racing and then switched teams, but none of that matters now.
She is ready to get back to those winning ways.
“For us to win, it is going to take everything being on point at the same time, me being good on my reaction times, the car running good and not dropping cylinders, all of us coming together and pretty much the planets aligning,” a frustrated DeJoria said. “It is going to happen. It is just a matter of time. I’m not worried about it. I get frustrated because I know we have a car that can win. I know we have what it takes to win. And everybody on this team has won before. So it is just a matter of time. Our time will come.”
DeJoria qualified seventh for this weekend’s U.S. Nationals and will square off with Blake Alexander on Sunday.
A FORCE UNDER THE LIGHTS - John Force likes to consider himself a member of the old school crowd. And why not? After 50 years behind the wheel, Force has seen it all. He has raced with and against the best the sport has ever seen. He has done it on the biggest stages and at the smallest tracks on Saturday nights under the lights.
And it is that feeling of racing under the lights that really gets his blood pumping. “I’ve always loved it. I come from the old school match race school,” Force said. “To come out here at night and go down that race track, header fire on both sides, driving around, weaving, there is nothing like it.”
So anytime Force has an opportunity to shine bright under the lights, he revels in the opportunity.
Friday night, Force once again showed why he is truly ageless in the sport of drag racing, powering his PEAK Chevrolet Camaro SS Funny Car to the top spot, earning the provisional pole at the Dodge SRT NHRA U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway. And he did it in true Force fashion, flirting with the wall and using every inch of the track to drive to the top of the charts.
“(Crew chief) Daniel Hood does a great job with my car. He called the number, but he was upset. He thought he could run an 86,” Force said. “We just had to make sure we got in. With rain forecasted for tomorrow, we were counting cars. We agreed if this thing is out there dropping cylinders, doing whatever, shut it off. Otherwise, if we weren’t in, then we’ve got to go for it. “(Hood) said what he was going to run and I said, ‘don’t get that aggressive.’ But I shut up, because that is how he races and obviously it worked out.”
Thankfully, Force didn’t have to worry about making the field. Force ran a 3.877-second pass at 330.72 mph in the next-to-last pairing of Friday’s only nitro qualifying session, just outrunning Bob Tasca to take the provisional top spot. Tasca ran a 3.889 at 332.67 mph, slotting his Motorcraft Ford Mustang right behind Force in second. Force’s JFR teammate Robert Hight was third with a 3.889 at 329.67 mph, while Cruz Pedregon (3.896) and J.R. Todd (3.905) rounded out the top five.
Adding to the excitement on Friday, Force’s daughter, Brittany, placed her Flav-R-Pac dragster in the provisional top spot in Top Fuel, setting up a potentially Force 1-2 qualifying effort at the biggest drag race in the world. And it comes just a few weeks removed from the duo winning both nitro categories at the Menards NHRA Nationals at Topeka just last month.
Brittany Force drove her machine to a 3.684 at 334.57 mph, outpacing Top Fuel championship leader Steve Torrence by four thousandths. “Both of our teams are running well right now,” Force said. “With the chance of rain tomorrow, if you don’t get to the other end you might not get any kind of E.T. and make the field. We knew we were in because three cars didn’t go down the racetrack, but Brittany had to go for it. (David) Grubnic looked at me (before the run) and said it is going. And it went. I am really proud of her. We are just doing really good together right now.”
If his time holds on Saturday, it will be the 162nd No. 1 qualifier of Force’s career. It will also be a great starting position for Force as he tries to break a tie with Ed “The Ace” McCulloch for the most Funny Car wins in U.S. Nationals history. Both drivers have five wins each at the Big Go as Force looks for a sixth Indy win just two years removed from his last victory at the track.
“That is what it is really all about,” Force said. “Ed McCulloch was my hero. People don’t understand that I am still chasing (Kenny) Bernstein and (Raymond” Beadle and (Don) Prudhomme and (Connie) Kalitta. That is where I came from and that is still how I think.”
WHERE THE ACTION IS – The numbers simply do not lie. Funny Car is king – at least competitively. Entering the Big Go this weekend at Lucas Oil Raceway, Steve Torrence leads the Top Fuel championship standings by a whopping 383 points. On two wheels, Matt Smith leads Pro Stock Motorcycle by 262 points. And in Pro Stock, Greg Anderson has a firm grip on the top spot by 154 points.
In Funny Car, the story is a bit different. While 154 points may separate first place Anderson and second place Aaron Stanfield in the closest championship battle of the aforementioned classes, in Funny car that same margin is the difference between first place Matt Hagan and eighth place Cruz Pedregon.
“Talk to any Funny Car driver or crew chief right now, and everyone will tell you the same thing. It’s been a long time, if ever, that we’ve seen the points this close with so many different teams heading into Indy, the final opportunity to secure your starting position for the Countdown to the Championship playoffs,” said Ron Capps, who enters this weekend fifth in the Funny Car championship standings. “With that being said, our goal is to do what we’ve done almost this whole season, and that’s qualify well. Obviously, we’d love to have the No. 1 spot, but to gain those three little bonus points each session, with so much at stake, will be crucial. Our goal is to gain as many points as we need to be the regular-season points leader come Monday morning.”
In one of the more unique championship battles in recent memory, more than half of the Funny Car field is still in contention to claim the regular season title as the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series shifts into Countdown to the Championship mode following this weekend. Hagan leads the class thanks to the shot in the arm provided by his win two weeks ago in Brainerd. That win, his second of the season, gives the driver of the Mopar Hellcat SRT Funny Car a 15-point lead over both Bob Tasca and J.R. Todd. John Force, who leads the class in wins with three in 2021, is 16 points behind Hagan in fourth. Ron Capps is fifth, 25 points back. The rest of the top 10 are Robert Hight, Alexis DeJoria, Pedregon, Tim Wilkerson and Blake Alexander.
While Capps currently sits fifth, with the return of Indy’s unique points-and-a-half format, he is less than one round from the points lead. “There’s a lot of teams vying for that. It’s very, very tight, and I’m pretty excited,” Capps said. “These past two races, following our win in Pomona, we’ve seemed to lose a little bit of performance but (crew chiefs) Guido (Dean Antonelli) and John Medlen have been working on consistency in the clutch area and the bellhousing, and I think we have that dialed-in now. I’m pumped about this weekend. It’s our biggest race of the season. I’ve never won the U.S. Nats, and I’d love nothing more than to deliver an Indy trophy for NAPA, GearWrench and Pennzoil.”
With 187 points available this weekend thanks to the unique scoring system, that leaves nearly every driver in the top 10 eligible – at least mathematically – for a shot at the regular season crown.
Additionally, nine of the top 10 drivers have secured their spot in the Countdown, with potentially only one spot remaining. Blake Alexander and his Head Inc. / Pronto Auto Parts Ford Mustang currently hold that spot by 81 points over Jim Campbell. Paul Lee and Terry Haddock are also mathematically eligible to make the championship showdown this weekend. Thanks to a new wrinkle this season that affords any driver who has made a minimum of two qualifying runs at every national event in the regular season a spot in the Countdown, Campbell will lock himself into the Countdown via the new rule if he completes two qualifying passes this weekend. If Alexander stays ahead of Campbell in points, there will be 11 cars competing in this year’s Funny Car Countdown. In all, in one of the more competitive seasons in recent memory, seven different drivers have gone to victory lane in 12 races, with Force, Hagan, Hight and Tasca winning more than once.
AN IMPRESSIVE STAT – This weekend, Robert Hight is trying to climb to the top of the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series Funny Car championship standings for the 14th time in the past 16 seasons in which they have contested the championship.
Yes, you read that right. In 14 of the past 16 seasons in which Hight has competed, he has led the championship at some point during the season. And in three of those seasons, he led the championship at just the right time, taking the Funny Car world title in 2009, 2017 and 2019. The only two seasons in which he contested the championship and did not at some point lead the standings came in 2013 and 2015 where he got as high as third, but no higher despite winning two races each season. Hight’s team sat out the 2020 season.
He has pushed that tally to the limits a number of times, only leading in the waning moments of the season during his championship runs in ’09 and ’17, but for most of his career, Hight has spent time at the very top.
This season, Hight has been as high as second in the standings, but a string of early exits in the past three races has seen him plummet down the ladder. Hight enters this weekend’s race sixth in the Camping World points, 83 markers back of leader Matt Hagan. After a first round exit two weeks ago in Brainerd, coupled with a pair of second round defeats in the races prior, Hight and the Automobile Club of Southern California Chevrolet Camaro team took some time to test in Brainerd and hopefully work out the bugs ahead of this weekend.
“This Auto Club Chevy, we’ve either been good, or we’ve been bad, there hasn’t been any in between,” Hight said. “Honestly, I think we found some consistency during Brainerd testing, we ran well, every pass. As far as confidence leaving Brainerd, both John (Force) and my team, we were pretty stoked.”
Hight is seeking his fourth win at the U.S. Nationals. He previously won in 2006, 2008 and 2013. If successful in securing his fourth victory at the historic facility, Hight would tie Don Prudhomme for third most Funny Car victories at the U.S. Nationals. In addition to his three wins, he also has been runner-up three times, most recently in 2015. “You don’t want to look back at your career and say you never won Indy. I’ve been fortunate enough to say I’ve won it a couple times and I’m looking forward to winning it a couple more,” Hight said. “There are full fields at this event. Our plan is to go out, make our run, get in the show and use Saturday to try and get as much data and build consistency for Sunday.” Hight sits third after one round of qualifying, running a 3.889 at 329.67 mph Friday night.
ANOTHER IMPRESSIVE STAT - Kalitta Motorsports owns Lucas Oil Raceway. Ok, not literally, but figuratively the Kalitta Motorsports crew of J.R. Todd, Shawn Langdon and Doug Kalitta have combined to give their boss four-straight wins at the most prestigious race in all of drag racing. Todd got the streak started with back-to-back wins in Funny Car in 2017 and 2018, followed by a Kalitta victory in 2019 and a Langdon win last year, both in Top Fuel. If Todd - or one of his teammates - can do it again this weekend, that will be five-straight U.S. Nationals wins for the nitro team.
An impressive streak at any track, but even more special at the Big Go.
“I didn’t even realize (the streak) existed until I saw something on social media,” Todd said. “We’ve had a pretty good run the last few years and hopefully we can keep that going. It would be nice to put that DHL Toyota Camry back in the winner’s circle. We came close last year, but we couldn’t seal the deal. Hopefully we can go one more step this year.”
Todd enters this weekend’s regular season finale hoping to secure the number one seed in Funny Car for the Countdown to the Championship playoffs. After advancing to two final rounds and a semifinal in the last three races, Todd is just 15 points out of the Funny Car point lead entering the weekend.
“The last three races (the car) has been running really well,” Todd said. “Hopefully we’ve got momentum going on our side at the right time of year. It would be nice to start winning some races when it counts and get those points going into the playoffs.”
His hunt for the number one seed comes at the race where he’s enjoyed more success than any other on the circuit since moving to Funny Car. In four previous U.S. Nationals, the Indiana native who grew up racing at the track in Junior Dragsters has earned two victories in 2017 and 2018, one runner-up in 2020 and one semifinal in 2019, on the way to an impressive 13-2 round win-loss record at the track.
On Friday night, Todd once again looked like a man on a mission, placing his Toyota Funny Car fifth on the ladder with a 3.905 at 326.63 mph. “Every time you pull in here I have memories of being here as a little kid racing Junior Dragsters. It is like a second home for me as my home track,” Todd said. “It would be awesome to win a third here. I want to get as many of these as I can. I’m already in elite company with drivers that have multiple Indy wins and I’d love to be able to move my name up that list.”
HAGAN OUT, JOHNSON IN - As the teams were preparing to turn the first tire in nitro competition Friday night at the Dodge SRT NHRA U.S. Nationals, Don Schumacher Racing announced that defending Funny Car world champion and current point leader Matt Hagan would not take part in the race after testing positive for COVID-19. Hagan had not been in contact with anyone since his diagnosis, and is currently quarantining.
In his place, a familiar face in the DSR camp took over driving duties in the Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Redeye Funny Car as Tommy Johnson Jr. returned to compete in this weekend’s event in Hagan’s place. “We’re disappointed Matt won’t have the opportunity to compete for a trophy this weekend, but the health and safety of our fans, competitors, NHRA staff, and team members is our top priority,” said team boss Don Schumacher. “We wish Matt a speedy recovery and hope he can return to competition soon. In the meantime, we’re pleased Tommy Johnson Jr. was available to fill-in in Matt’s absence. Tommy has been a part of the DSR family for many years, and we know he will do Matt and DSR proud.” Regarding the 2021 NHRA Countdown to the Championship, per NHRA, any points accumulated by Johnson during the NHRA U.S. Nationals will be awarded to Hagan, the current Funny Car point leader. Johnson did not make a pass Friday night, getting shut down on the line after briefly firing his car.
BLOCK HEAD - The Funny Car category got off to a rough start Friday night at the Dodge SRT NHRA U.S. Nationals as only two of the first five drivers recorded times. After Justin Schriefer recorded a 4.097 and Dale Creasy Jr. recorded a 6.609, the other three cars up first on the sheet all ran into issues. The most exciting of that group was Chad Green, who drifted out of the groove and collected several timing blocks, eliminating both his and Dave Richard’s times.
8 SECONDS? TRY 3 SECONDS - To many, one of the most intense and exciting sports you can ever see is bull riding. Grown men and women hopping on the back of a 1,500-pound bull for eight incredible seconds, just trying to hold on for dear life.
It is an amazing sight, which is why it is considered an extreme sport and one thousands flock to see each year. But ask the driver of a nitro-powered Funny Car about eight seconds on the back of a bull, and you might get a bit of a laugh. Try three seconds at 330 miles-per-hour in a 2,000-pound cage of metal and carbon fiber. And it is that challenge that draws some of the best drivers in the world to the sport of drag racing.
“I think everyone knows that Funny Car is one of the biggest challenges in the world,” said Funny Car driver Blake Alexander. “The field of cars is deep and many of them are fully funded. They are all seasoned drivers who have done this for a long time. It is a dogfight, but it is cool. We want to be in the hardest class. I like driving Funny Car. It is a lot of fun. When you can do something that is very difficult well, and obviously it is hard to do this every single time perfectly, it is very rewarding. It is rewarding mentally for all of us.”
Looking to add to the challenge this weekend, Alexander enters the Dodge SRT NHRA U.S. Nationals in 10th place in the Funny Car championship standings, the only driver not currently locked into the Funny Car field. He holds a sizable advantage over 11th place Jim Campbell, with three drivers mathematically eligible for the 10th and final spot. But if Alexander can continue the momentum of the past few races, he should be able to secure enough points to earn the first Countdown to the Championship berth of his career. “We were never really trying to (make the Countdown), we didn’t run all of the races and we probably won’t run all of the races in the Countdown. We are just going out here and doing what we do and tweaking and trying to win the race. We’ve come close, but we need to be better. “It is still cool (to make the Countdown), but we will officially cross that bridge when we get there. The next step ahead is we have to show up and do the best we can this weekend. Then we can focus on the races ahead.”
And Alexander has been on quite a roll lately. After recording only one round win at the season’s first eight races, he has collected five round wins in the last four races, including a semifinal finish at Topeka. Additionally, Alexander has qualified in the top half of the field in four straight races with a season-high third at Pomona. That momentum has propelled Alexander into the top 10 where he stands this weekend.
“The car is running well. We didn’t run as great at Brainerd as we have the past few races, but we qualified in the top half of the field at the past four races,” Alexander said. “We can’t really ask for much more than that. We just need to try and stick it in the top five here this weekend and set ourselves up to go rounds on Sunday.”
Alexander qualified 10th Friday night after one of three scheduled qualifying sessions, running a 3.970 at 318.69 mph. With one more day of qualifying ahead, Alexander shifts his focus to what lies ahead on Sunday as he tries to treat this race like any other. A tall task the granddaddy of them all.
“I try not to think of any of the outside circumstances, but at the same time I understand we are racing for a bigger pot and we are running against top of the line people out here,” Alexander said. “It gives you a heightened sense of awareness. Obviously there are a lot of challenges, but we want to do as well as we can. “We will go out here and try to do our best. We’ve been improving and we’ve got the car where we like it for this weekend. Now we are ready to show it.”
FUNNY CAR SHOOTOUTS ARE BACK - Moments before the first pair of nitro machines fired Friday night at the Dodge SRT NHRA U.S. Nationals, the National Hot Rod Association announced the return of nitro shootouts in 2022.
For the first time in four seasons, the NHRA will host a specialty race amongst the stars of the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series nitro categories.
Fans will be treated to two NHRA Allstar Shootout events next year, at the Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals and the Dodge SRT NHRA U.S. Nationals. The NHRA Allstar Shootout events will feature competition amongst the top eight NHRA Top Fuel and Funny Car drivers in the world. The shootout will utilize a call-out format with the No. 1 seed getting their first choice of opponent. The first shootout of the season will be the Top Fuel NHRA Allstar Shootout at the 53rd annual Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals, in Gainesville on Saturday, March 12. The eight-car field will be set based on a combination of season end and qualifying points at the 2022 Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals and NHRA Arizona Nationals. The Funny Car class will have their Funny Car NHRA Allstar Shootout at the 68th Dodge SRT NHRA U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis on Sunday, Sept. 4. Drivers will gain points towards the shootout from the 2021 Dodge SRT NHRA U.S. Nationals until the event before the 2022 Indianapolis event.
“We are so thrilled for these two shootout events,” said NHRA President, Glen Cromwell. “Our drivers are intense competitors, and these two races will add some extra excitement to our already thrilling NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series.”
LUCKY SEVEN – Of the current batch of NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series Funny Car stars, only seven have been lucky enough to hoist a trophy as winner of the prestigious NHRA U.S. Nationals.
16-time Funny Car world champion John Force is tied with Ed “The Ace” Mulloch for the most Funny Car wins at the U.S. Nationals with five, having won the race in 1993, 1996, 1998, 2002 and 2019. Force’s teammate Robert Hight is also a multi-time winner of the biggest drag race in the world, having won the Big Go in 2006, 2008 and 2013. Cruz Pedregon, who snapped a long losing streak earlier this year, is also a three-time winner of this race, with wins coming in 1992, 1994 and 1995, while J.R. Todd rounds out the current multi-time winners with victories in 2017 and 2018. The remaining Funny Car competitors to taste victory in Indianapolis are Matt Hagan (2016), Alexis DeJoria (2014) and Tim Wilkerson (2003).
Can Force stand alone as the winningest Funny Car driver at the U.S. Nationals? Will we see another driver add to their Indy trophy collection? Or will we see a new face have an opportunity to call themselves a champion of this historic event? We will find out this weekend.
BLUE LIPS AND A BIG WIN PROVIDE MOTIVATION FOR BODE - The year was 2010. A hardworking, loveable underdog by the name of Bob Bode was in the final round of Funny Car at Brainerd International Raceway going against big show star Jack Beckman. At the starting line, a bulb on the Christmas tree began to glow yellow. And then another. And another. Suddenly, a flash of green and both cars were away. Moments into his run, Beckman’s car began to lose traction and he was forced to get out of the throttle. Bode, on the other hand, cruised right down Broadway - relatively speaking - with a 4.248-second pass at 253.66 mph. Then, another light began to glow bright. The win light. It was Bode’s first - and only - NHRA victory.
In the stands, an 8-year-old boy munched on a blue snow cone as the cars zoomed past on the track. A young Bobby Bode stood on the bleacher seat to get a better look. His dad had just won a race. In the winners circle, an overwhelmed Bode was thrust onto the stage as dozens of media members and fans snapped photos of the NHRA’s newest winner. In one of those photos, a tiny boy with blue lips stood by his father with a smile gleaming from ear to ear.
It is a moment that has lived with Bobby Bode to this day. “Before the final round I was eating a blue snow cone and in all of the winner’s circle pictures my lips are blue. It was a great day and a great memory,” Bode said. “I was in the grandstands watching as an 8-year-old and I was in total shock at the time. In the ceremony, I went on stage and held the Wally. Seeing all of the people there, I was like how cool is this? It made me want to do it myself one day.”
This weekend, that same boy - now 19 years of age - will make his Funny Car debut at the biggest drag race in the world.
“I’ve been dreaming of coming here since I was a little kid watching my dad race for 20 years,” Bode said. “It is surreal to be here. I kept thinking, wow, this can’t be real. I’m a college kid. There is no way I am racing at the U.S. Nationals, but here I am.”
Last year, the teenager from suburban Chicago essentially jumped straight from a Junior Dragster to a nitro-powered Funny Car. He inherited the Funny Car from his dad with plenty of instruction from fellow competitor Tim Wilkerson.
And his first pass behind the wheel was almost as memorable as that day watching his dad win. “The first time I got in the car and I hit the gas I said some words I can’t repeat right now,” Bode said with a laugh. “My first pass was so fast I had tunnel vision. It was crazy.”
In fact, Bode likes to brag that while his dad has a Wally in one of the sport’s premier classes, it is actually the younger Bode who holds more trophies, owning nine Wallys in the Junior Dragster ranks. In fact, Bobby won his first NHRA trophy exactly one week after his dad won that race in Brainerd. “That was his only Wally he has ever won, and then I won several during my junior career,” Bode said. “I won mine the week after he won his. He likes to tell everyone he won his before I won one. He will always have that one on me.” In his first Funny Car race, last fall at Houston, Bode qualified seventh in the 16-car field.
This year, he has qualified for all of the races he has entered. Now he gears up for the biggest race of his young career. On Friday night, Bode found himself just outside the top half of the field following one of three scheduled qualifying sessions. He ran a 3.952 at 259.06 mph under the lights.
So, as a 19-year-old college student, what do his friends think of Bode spending his weekends going 300 miles-per-hour against the legends of the sport of drag racing? “They think I am crazy,” Bode said with a laugh. “I’ve had people on the Monday after a race tell me that they saw me on television on Fox. So it is pretty cool just to walk around and have people tell you that they saw you.”
ALMOST COUNTDOWN BOUND - Welcome to the Countdown, Jim Campbell. Almost.
Thanks to a new rule implemented a few years ago that grants any driver in the top 10 in NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series points, and any driver that makes at the majority of their qualifying runs during the season, a spot in the Countdown to the Championship, Campbell is on the cusp of his first berth in the NHRA postseason this weekend. If Campbell completes his qualifying runs this weekend, he will place his Blaze Technical Services Dodge Charger Funny Car in the playoffs for the first time.
“They made this rule in 2019 and, of course COVID hit, so we didn’t get a chance to do it last year. It is only fair. If you spend all of your time traveling around the country, I believe we deserve an opportunity to run for the championship,” Campbell said. “This Funny Car class is a monster. You never know what is going to happen when you stomp on the throttle. We don’t have all of the runs we used to have. You only get three shots at it and if you mess up on the first two, you had better get it right on the third. But this weekend is the Big Go. We have a full field, so you have to work your way in. There are no freebies here. Some of these races there are 13 or 14 cars and, while you still want to do well, you know you are in the show. This weekend we will have to put it all on the line. “This is the end of the regular season. It is just like any other sport where we know we are going into the playoffs. And being a part of the playoffs, I’m pretty stoked myself.”
Campbell has had a textbook definition of an up-and-down season, bouncing around anywhere from 10th to 16th on the qualifying sheet, with the highlight of the season coming three races ago at Pomona when he went to the semifinal round at his home track. He eventually lost in that matchup to J.R. Todd, but the experience is just what he needed as he collected his first two round wins of the season and equalled his best finish at a race in his career.
“I really wanted to win that race. Going to the semis made it all worth it, especially in front of my friends and family,” Campbell said. “A good weekend really lifts your spirits. This sport is so up-and-down and as a driver, sometimes you come down hard on yourself. You ask yourself, ‘did I do everything right.’ The car has to do what it is going to do. The bottom line is, you have to get some wins because otherwise you feel like this is killing you.
“That weekend in Pomona was great for the team's momentum and spirit. It lifted everybody up and now we are stoked for this weekend.”
Campbell enters this weekend’s race 11th in the Camping World Drag Racing Series standings with a distant, but mathematical chance, to overtake Blake Alexander for 10th in the standings.
Regardless, if Campbell can make his qualifying runs this weekend, he will place himself into the Countdown field, potentially expanding the championship to 11 drivers this season. And Campbell checked one of those boxes on Friday night, successfully getting down the track with a 4.176 at 240.47 mph, placing him 12th on the ladder.
Adding to the excitement this weekend, Campbell is sporting a beautiful red, white, and blue flamed machine honoring the 25th anniversary of Blaze Technical Services. Among the items it manufactures, Blaze produces temperature probes used in many racing classes. Jim Dunn Racing is one of the teams utilizing Blaze components to track performance data on each qualifying and elimination round. “This is a great weekend all around,” Campbell said. “We are at the Big Go and we have the 25th anniversary of Blaze Technologies and the car looks absolutely beautiful.”
GUESS WHO’S BACK - Veteran nitro Funny Car Justin Schriefer’s passion for competing in the NHRA is still as high as ever.
Schriefer, who is based out of Grant Park, Ill., makes his annual pilgrimage to the granddaddy of them all this weekend for another shot at Indy glory.
“We’re really confident,” Schriefer said about his first race in 2021. “We have a lot of good parts, and we have our same tuner back John ‘Bodie’ Smith. Our expectations are to run in the 3s and qualify and bring a Wally home. We have high hopes.”
Schriefer progressed from bracket racing to the Funny Car ranks in 2005. Back in 2019, Schriefer qualified No. 16 for the U.S. Nationals with a 4.005-second elapsed time at 317.94 mph. In 2020 at the U.S. Nationals,
Schriefer battled some issues and was No. 17 in the 16-car field. “We had an explosion which was bad for us,” Schriefer said about his 2020 U.S. Nationals appearance.
“I have been so busy with work it has been hard to get out. We planned on doing Norwalk, Ohio, (June 24-27) but that got postponed on us because I have maintenance contracts in the steel mills, and I have just been crazy busy with work.”
Schriefer owns Renzo Excavating and that’s the main sponsor for his car. “My prime other sponsor for this year is West Side Tractor,” Schriefer said. “They have like 14 stores, and one is in Indianapolis, and they bought a bunch of tickets (for the U.S. Nationals) for people who support them. They also bought two camper spots by the finish line. They have a big rooting section for us.
They usually come out every year and support me and this year they are really going all out. We’re looking forward to doing a really good job in their eyes. I got a call saying they have one hundred and some tickets and I got a call saying they might have to purchase 30 or 40 tickets because they have so many people wanting to come out. It’s really exciting.”
Schriefer said if things go well in Indy, he plans on competing at the NHRA Midwest Nationals, Sept. 24-26 in St. Louis.
“Depending on my work situation, that’s my bread and butter we will see after that,” Schriefer said. Schriefer didn’t hesitate when asked what keeps him still competing in the NHRA ranks. “I love the fans,” Schriefer said. “The people inspire me. It just feels so good to be a mentor to people and I love the thrill and excitement of the nitro Funny Car. NHRA is just where it is at. This is the king of drag racing and where everybody wants to be.” - Tracy Renck