2021 NHRA VEGAS FOUR WIDE - EVENT NOTEBOOK
TORRENCE FEELS PRESSURE AS NEW DAD BUT DELIVERS 41ST TOP FUEL VICTORY AS FOUR-WIDE KING - Four-wide NHRA drag racing is wild enough by itself. Top Fuel racer Antron Brown calls it “controlled chaos.”
But if the Denso Spark Plugs Four-Wide Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway is double the trouble and double the excitement, double that for Steve Torrence – or triple that.
Since the season-opening Gatornationals last month, “so much had transpired” for the three-time and reigning champion from Kilgore, Texas. So what’s a little extra drama?
“That one was pretty high pressure for me personally,” he said Sunday after leaving Doug Kalitta, Clay Millican, and Antron Brown as mere blips in his rear-view mirror.
Torrence became a first-time father to daughter Charli April 7, his own 38th birthday was Saturday, his mother Kay’s birthday was Sunday, and crew member Dom Lagana – who has shown steady recovery from an auto accident last August that has left him learning to walk with prosthetic legs – was someone for whom he wanted to score a victory.
“You got Dom on the starting line and Mama Kay’s birthday, and you got your daughter’s first race – you’ve got to get something done,” Torrence declared as he clutched his 41st Wally statue.
“Dom is up and walking even better than he was in Gainesville. He was on the starting line for that final round. So to compound my little girl’s first race win, which was the first race that we had her, my mother’s birthday and Dom standing on the starting line, you go up there with a little pressure to win,” he said, “because that’s what we come to do. We come to win, just like everybody.
“We just went up there and - I don’t want to eat my own words, but – I think that as my career has progressed, I do better in high-pressure situations,” Torrence said.
He does pretty doggone well in four-wide races, too. This is his fifth in six non-traditional format.
“At first, I was openly outspoken about not liking the four-wide concept or the whole program. But the way things are going, I have to like them, because we do well at them,” Torrence said.
“We're die-hard racers, so anything out of the norm is different for us. But if you're a fan coming and watching this, it’s probably pretty kick-ass,” he said. “I don't know if it's just because you run three rounds or the format messes with everybody a little bit, but we do well at it. So I'm looking forward to the next one.
It will come soon enough. After the NHRA’s final visit to Atlanta Dragway April 30-May 2, the Camping World Drag Racing Series will swing through Concord, N.C., for another four-lane spectacle at zMAX Dragway.
Torrence won with a 3.823-second elapsed time at 321.73-mph performance on the 1,000-foot course. But he said he felt satisfied with his car since the start of the campaign.
“We had a really good race car in Gainesville, and we went out and just overestimated what that track would take and smoked the tires,” he said. “We had a good weekend here. We ran well in qualifying. We got picked off the top spot by Brittany [Force]. They made a stout run then and a stout run earlier today. But these deals aren’t about who runs the fastest. They’re about who gets to the finish line first. We got it done today.”
No. 1 starter Force advanced from her opening-round quad but saw Brown and Millican best in Round 2.
Torrence said he got a kick out of a question FOX reporter Bruno Massel posed to him early Sunday.
Said Torrence, “He goes, ‘What's your strategy going in?’ I go, ‘Do you think I ever have a strategy? I just try to figure out what's happening at the moment and do it.’”
The result is he leads Kalitta in the standings by 21 points.
BOB TASCA III BREAKS DROUGHT WITH FUNNY CAR WIN AT VEGAS FOUR-WIDE NATIONALS - Team owner/driver Bob Tasca III has never wavered when talking about the talent of his nitro Funny Car team.
Tasca and his team showed just what type of talent they have Sunday.
Tasca powered his way to the title at the Denso Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in his Ford Mustang.
“We went to a bunch of semifinals last year,” Tasca said. “We had a car every race that could win it and these things aren’t easy to win and the Four-Wides are even harder because you have to beat three people in the finals. It is just a tribute to this team led by (crew chiefs) Mike Neff and Jon Schaffer. We keep getting stronger. I can’t thank Ford Motor Company enough. People had to lay people off and Ford gave me the funding to keep my whole team together and it shows with how the car is running. Happy Birthday Mustang, 57 years old, we are going to celebrate tonight.”
This is Tasca’s first win since he won back-to-back races in 2019, the last being at Norwalk, Ohio, June 23. Tasca now has seven career nitro Funny Car wins.
“I felt things building and building today,” Tasca said. “The car was strong all weekend and we saw something on that semifinal run and we knew we could pick the car up even more. Zippy and Jon said (to me) just do what you do, and we will win this race. Hey, listen, it was a good week for this team and the third win for this team. I don’t think I have ever led the points and coming out of here with the points lead and a trophy, well, that's what we are here to do, win.”
In the semis, Tasca III finished second in his quad to Ron Capps (3.935 seconds), while Tasca came in at 3.934 seconds.
During the finals, Tasca clocked a 3.938-second pass at 328.46 mph. That was the second quickest ET of the four drivers – Tim Wilkerson clocked a 3.922-second run at 320.43 mph – but Tasca won on a hole shot with a .057 reaction time. Wilkerson had a .095 reaction time.
Tasca’s closest competitor in the finals was Matt Hagan. Tasca finished fifth in the points standings a year ago. He posted a 12-10 elimination round record last season and made it to four semifinal rounds.
At the season-opening Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals in Gainesville March 12-14, Tasca lost in the semifinals to Robert Hight. Tracy Renck
ERICA ENDERS OVERCOMES STRUGGLES, WINS PRO STOCK CROWN AT VEGAS - Odds of Pro Stock star Erica Enders winning the Denso Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway Sunday, were long at best.
Enders, the reigning and back-to-back world champion, had to fight and scratch to just qualify as she began race day in the No. 13 spot.
That was coming off a first-round loss at the season-opening Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla., March 14.
All those struggles were forgotten by Sunday evening.
Enders powered her way to the win as she clocked a 6.656-second lap at 205.88 mph in her Chevy Camaro. She edged her teammate Aaron Stanfield at Richard Freeman’s Elite Motorsports, who came in at 6.667 seconds at 205.26 mph.
“It feels like a decade ago,” said Enders, who won her latest world crown at the season-ending race in Las Vegas in 2020. “When we showed up on the property and blew the back window out of the thing on Friday and again Saturday we didn’t get in (the field) until the final session I was semi a little nervous and questioning a lot. We kind of went back to our old faithful setup and my guys worked from there. We didn’t show our hand in the final session obviously because we had the car gathered to just get it down the racetrack. We went a 69 and progressively got better all of race day.”
Although Enders was concerned about race day – her team wasn’t.
“My guys just stepped up to the plate,” she said. “I say that all the time, but when their back’s our against the wall they perform. I should have been nervous because they do that every single time, I ask them to. This was a great win for everybody on our team, especially with me and Aaron coming in first and second. I would not have thought that when I went to bed on Friday. I’m thankful. It is so fun to win. This feeling is replaced by nothing else in the entire world. Performance is a great deodorant for whatever drama you have going on and it definitely boosts the team.”
Enders has won Pro Stock world championships in 2014-15 and 2019-2020. This was Enders 30th career Pro Stock national event win.
“It is challenging enough to have one competitor, but having three competitors and yourself, I know the starting line game,” Enders said. “It is my favorite part. It is so important where your eyes go. Having all that flickering and the distractions of people getting in a hurry or not sure what lane they are in and hanging you out inadvertently, you have to be ready for anything. You have to focus more than any other drag race and it makes this win even more significant.”
After her Vegas victory, Enders is brimming with optimism.
“I was very disappointed in my performance as a driver at the Doorslammer Nationals, losing on a holeshot to one of the Cuadras and the same thing happened to me in Gainesville,” Enders said. “My guys just had my back. We joke that we win as a team and lose as a driver. I was pretty down. I was apologizing to them because they gave me the hot rod to do it and I just didn’t get it done. They boosted me up. They told me we had plenty of time to get the ball back on our court and this was a great place to kick it off. We just got to keep the momentum going, most importantly, I have to keep the mental side of this game intact.” Tracy Renck
OEHLER SHAKES OFF SAND, GLITCHES TO EARN SECOND VICTORY IN FOUR-WIDE BIKE RACE THAT ENDS AS TWO-WIDE - Pro Stock Motorcycle racer Ryan Oehler went from the sandbox to the winners circle at this weekend’s NHRA Denso Spark Plugs Four-Wide Nationals.
His Flyin’ Ryan Racing / B&K Cylinder Racing EBR came to rest in the sand trap at the end of the quarter-mile course at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the opening qualifying session Friday.
But even though Oehler’s weekend began in a slightly messy fashion, it ended spectacularly Sunday with his second overall triumph and his first since the first of four Indianapolis races last season.
With half of the final quartet disabled or disqualified by the start of the run, the showdown became a sprint between Oehler and fellow team-owner Cory Reed.
Oehler’s 6.911-second elapsed time at 194.83 mph was more than enough to dismiss Reed, who trailed by about 17 feet, or .0612 of a second, at the finish line with a 6.948, 193.10 clocking.
Steve Johnson, who just turned 60 years old in January and was seeking his first victory in 102 races (since the 2014 Gatornationals), and Scotty Pollacheck, who wanted a trophy from a four-wide race to go with his 2020 U.S. Nationals Wally, advanced to the final quad. But Johnson’s bike broke at the starting line, and Pollacheck red-lighted by one-hundredth of a second.
Oehler joined Steve Torrence (Top Fuel), Bob Tasca III (Funny Car), and Erica Enders (Pro Stock) as winners in this second race of the season.
The animated Oehler said he enjoys four-wide racing, but he said it did cause him to scratch his head a little.
“I love it. I absolutely love it,” he said. “But I'm the guy that likes a challenge and the intensity that the four-wide presents, the staging intensity. It’s just something I thrive off of. I won't say I wish they were all four-wide, because it is a whole different race platform, but I do enjoy when we get to go to one.”
But he said it took him a whole to figure out the scoreboard. He said it “definitely” was tricky, partly because of distortion of “your peripheral vision.”
Oehler said, “First round was the first time I figured out how the win lights work. Solid is (No.) 2; flashing is (No.) 1. I was like, ‘Ah!! I get it!!’ When I go through the finish line in the finals, I didn’t see anyone. Then I see Cory, and his light came on solid. I don't sense anyone around me but Corey. Then we go through the finish line, Corey kind of seemed like he was ahead of me, but then his light comes on solid and then no other light comes on and then suddenly about a one-count blink, blink, blink, blink, blink . . . all of a sudden – flash-flash-flash. And I was like, ‘Oooooh! I know what that means!’ . . . like jackpot baby! I knew at that point, because I didn't even know until first round how that really worked. First round I was quick the whole heat and there it was, I had the blinking lights so then I knew. Yeah, that was awesome.”
The Bloomington, Ill., businessman made an executive decision about his motor after the early qualifying mishap. He said the team usually brings three motors to the track, but they had ruined one at Gainesville in the previous event. So they arrived in Las Vegas with just two, and he said he was “worried when we went in the sand Friday. The engine was running on its side. There were no rocks in it, but there was a lot of dust in it. We didn’t want to change at that moment.”
That turned out to be a significant decision, for he had to change the engine after the first round Sunday because of a broken oil-pump belt. “It’s a good thing,” Oehler said, “because we would have been screwed.”
When his brakes failed on the first pass here, Oehler credited his feet – which he referred to as “my size-12 skis . . . the biggest foot in Pro Stock Motorcycle” – for stopping him in the sand. But once he was satisfied early Saturday that his brakes would start performing as designed, he shook off the experience.
“You totally think, ‘I hope I got my brakes running better.’ It made me feel a little bit better because when we ran Q2, I had to shut it off because I got over by the wall, I noticed they were a little bit spongy. Then in Q3, the brakes worked fine. So the brakes were out of my mind,” he said.
“Then eliminations just went off. We cut good lights, solid lights. We brought it the best we could in the finals. We ran our low E.T. of the weekend, best speed of the weekend,” Oehler said.
But on that first run, Oehler said, “The guy at the end of the track that takes care of us at the Safety Safari says, ‘Hey, Ryan, you went from ‘I can't stop’ to the backdrop.’ And I said, ‘You hit the nail on the head with that one.’ Then we go through the weekend, we got a broken oil pump belt after Round 1, and thank goodness we got High Performance Lubricants on our team that helps us and make sure we got in the slickest, best oil out there for our bike. We were able to survive Round 1 with the quickest pass in Round 1. We go to Round 2 with a motor swap. Now you got a new motor. You got to figure out the tune. We went a .98. I told everybody, ‘I know what it needs. It’s still making too much power.’ We took power out of it, we go to the top. We go low E.T. of the weekend. We go 6.91. We go our best 60-foot of the weekend and an .02 light. And that's why we're here in the winners circle.”
He made it all sound so neat and tidy.
CHANGES PROMPT ANDERSON TO THINK ABOUT END OF HIS CAREER, ASHLEY HAS SURPRISE VISITOR, KID CHAOS KEEPING HIS COOL, MILADINOVICH FUN DRAG-RACING AMBASSADOR
One day, it seems, four-time Pro Stock champion was grooving along, comfortable in his ability to accumulate victories. (He just added another, his 95th, on his 60th birthday last month at the season-opening Gatornationals.) He was comfortable with teammates and fellow champions Jason Line and Bo Butner, as well as with his competitors. He still was at least one of the class dominators, secure in his Summit Racing Equipment banner-carrying at KB Racing.
But all of a sudden, he looked around and the landscape was different. Line and Butner stepped away from their driving duties. He didn’t win any one of the 11 races last season – while Matt Hartford and Aaron Stanfield won in Texas and were runners-up at other races, as were class rookies Troy Coughlin Jr. and Kyle Koretsky. His chief rival, Erica Enders, was gaining on his legacy with her fourth series title. And his longtime Summit primary sponsorship evaporated, leaving him to chase new funding sources.
Greg Anderson’s world in 2021 definitely is different. But he’s rolling with these rather painful – or at least stinging – punches.
“I feel like a senior citizen out here,” Anderson said during qualifying at the Denso Four-Wide Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. “It's interesting, though. It's kind of cool to watch these young kids. We all say we need young blood in the class, and we got it now. We absolutely have it. It used to be all old people like me, and now I'm probably one of one or two guys that are older. The rest of them are young. So the class switched, and that’s what it has to do to continue on.
“So it's all good. I'm loving it. I'm liking racing against these young kids,” he said. “They have no fear. They're all starting their careers and like [with] great equipment, which we couldn’t say that when we started. We had to claw and scrape just to get in a car period, and it certainly wasn’t competitive enough to win a race. And now it's like all these young cats, they’re jumping in race cars that are at the top of the performance chain and they can go out and win a race right away. Completely different deal, but it creates a hell of a challenge for an old guy like me. Well, I'm enjoying it. I'm loving it.”
Earning that Wally at Gainesville reassured him.
“So I guess I can still compete with them. It makes you feel good,” he said. “Put it on paper, I shouldn't be able to compete with them. They should be able to kill me on the starting line. So if I can hang near them enough to win a race, I’m still doing all right.
“I've said it for years to the reaction-time thing. It's not a physical thing; it's a mind thing. It's 100 percent a mind game. Ninety percent of this game is a mind game. So you can stack up with them. It just seems like you can't do it every single time like they can. It's easy for them. Unfortunately, the older we get we can still do it. We just can't do it every single time. It's like that song.”
He was referring to Toby Keith’s “I Ain’t As Good As I Once Was, But I’m As Good Once As I Ever Was.”
He said, “That's the glaring difference between myself 20 years ago and now. I can still do it. Like I do it every time.”
Anderson sort of feels like The Lone Ranger in his pit, although the new-guard headliner Koretsky and his Chevy Camaro [with steady funding] literally are just steps from him.
“It’s weird without Jason, no question about it,” he said.
“So things have changed, but I still haven't lost any desire to do it. I still have the desire to do it. I'm still having a ball doing it. I think I'm having more fun now because I know I'm close to the end and there's no guarantee on how much longer I'll be able to do it. You’ve still got to have sponsors. You’ve still got to have funding to do it. So you never know when you’re just not going to have that and you won't be able to do it. So if this is the last year . . . Who knows? If this is the last race or the last year or there's two more years or five more, you don't know. I think that's why I'm enjoying it so much more right now – because you know the end is coming.”
He said Funny Car’s almost-72-year-old John Force – one of the few racers who has more victories than he does – is “he's certainly proving people wrong. But the bottom line is you have to have the funding, and that's getting tougher every year to find the funding to be able to do it. I've got Denso this weekend. Summit is still here but in a minor role. They’re not a major sponsor anymore, so they're still on board and they're still great supporters, but not at the level they used to be. I have to find someone else for the door every race I go to or someone that needs to stay on there all year long is the goal.Hopefully before long we'll have something that stays on the door the rest of the year. But if we can't come up with that, you never know when your last race, your last season is your last season.”
What would Anderson do if he had to park his car?
“I’d have to stay at my shop and work on engines and work on stuff and just continue rental programs like these,” he said, nodding to Koretsky’s ride. “I’ve got to pay for the house car with sponsorships. It’s just the way it is. If I can continue to do that, I'll continue racing. If I can't, I'll stay at the shop. I won't race a car, but I'll continue furnishing engines and coming to tune race cars. I'll still like it, but it won't be as much of a thrill.
“I honestly think I'm enjoying the driving part more this year than ever because I know I’m getting close to the end of the road,” Anderson said. “But I think even before that [last win] happened I said, ‘You know what? This is fun. If it goes away next month or three months or six months from now. I’m going to enjoy these last six months.’”
Force has 151 victories, and inactive Pro Stock legend Warren Johnson has 97. This season Anderson could surpass Johnson and it’s possible he could reach the 100-victory plateau before year’s end. But Anderson has more pressing matters than reaching his 100th trip to the winners circle.
“I would love to,” he said, “and that is a goal. I would love to, but if I don't, my life has still been pretty good. That’s certainly my goal.”
LEARNING FROM THE MASTER – Top Fuel ace Justin Ashley had a special surprise visitor at his Strutmasters.com / Auto Shocker Dragster pits Saturday morning.
“Joe Amato was kind enough to stop by,” he said.
Ashley was stunned when his girlfriend popped her head into the hauler lounge and let him know Amato, the five-time Top Fuel champion and successful businessman, was waiting outside to visit with him.
“I have a lot of respect for him as a driver and a businessman,” Ashley, last season’s NHRA rookie of the year, said. “He was kind enough to come over and introduce himself. We spoke for a while, touched on all things racing and all things business. He was kind enough to share some advice and some stories.”
He said those few minutes were “a really, really cool deal for me, to know that he took the time to come over and talk to me. He had a lot of really kind words to say. Hopefully he and I can stay in touch.
“He’s a very smart guy. Racing is one thing, right? But listening to him on the business side is super- important to me,” Ashley said. The 26-year-old entrepreneur said he wanted to maximize the opportunity “to pick his brain and see what he says, because obviously he’s a super-successful guy – and a good guy.
“Definitely, that just made my weekend, right there,” he said. “It was so cool.”
Amato had another surprise for Ashley. “Believe it or not, Ashley said, “he said his daughter is a big fan. I got a kick out of that. He asked to take a picture together.”
TRADING PLACES – At the March 26-27 Funny Car Chaos season-opener at Texas Motorplex, Funny Car owner-driver Tim Wilkerson and crew chief Richard Hartman traded places. And Hartman, driving with a Wilkerson-supplied chassis, set the record with a 4.920-second elapsed time in the quarter-mile at a 296.13-mph speed that Friday night. It came against the Farris Brothers’ "War Wagon" entry that NHRA Top Fuel racer Kebin Kinsley was driving. Hartman had said that evening, "We're going to see if we can run 300 on Saturday night" – and he did (4.920, 304.53).
“It’s just something Richard wanted to do, run that car, And it was something fun to do,” the Levi Ray & Shoup Mustang Funny Car boss said. “We had a weekend off after they cancelled Atlanta and moved it. We put all that junk in a pile and dragged it to Dallas and had some fun.”
Wilkerson said he had no worries that Hartman would start liking it too much: “No, no. We may run it again sometime. We’ll see.”
Funny Car Chaos mastermind Chris Graves has done an impressive job of establishing and growing the independent series, Wilkerson said. “That was the only reason we went there [Chris]. We wanted to try to go someplace the track would be good, because it’s hard to run that thing when the track’s not good. We’re lucky, really. It’s fun.”
Wilkerson continues to work with Pro Modified racer Chad Green, who also has pursued a Funny Car career and grabbed the No. 11 spot Friday.
“We’re trying to get him out of that junky Pro Mod car and get him over here,” Wilkerson said with a wink. “He likes them both. There are different challenges in driving them. He’s a really good guy, and he listens well. He doesn’t give me a hard time when I yell at him and tell him he’s doing something wrong. I like that part of it. He’s cool. I’m lucky to have him and be involved with him. I’m hoping it’ll turn into something big.
“We actually bought all that stuff last year and we converted every car the same, so all the bodies fit each other. So he’s got exactly the same identical stuff I’ve got,” he said. “Before, he was just driving my stuff and keeping his license current and having fun. Now he’s right out of the frying pan into the fire. He needed to do that. He’s got a good car and good truck and trailer. Good junk, as I call it. We’ll see how it goes.”
‘KID CHAOS’ COOL, CALM, COMFORTABLE – Second-year, second-generation Pro Stock racer Kyle Koretsky has (the second-hand-ish) nickname “Kid Chaos.” It’s a play-on-words taken from dad Kenny Koretsky’s reputation as “Captain Chaos.” But Kyle Koretsky rather likes it.
“Yeah, I like it. Gives a little twist to it,” Koretsky, the newest KB Racing team who’ll turn 32 next month, said.
It’s fitting. He caused a little chaos in his previous appearance here, advancing to Pro Stock’s final round against Erica Enders at the 2020 Finals. (He missed his chance to earn a Wally trophy in his rookie season by leaving the starting line .051 of a second too early.)
“We had a great outing last Vegas. Great car, as usual. KB Racing cars are phenomenal, but I think I was anxious, went red. But it's all right. Great people, good team, and if you want to be the best you got to beat the best.” He said of Enders, “Seems like she really does good in Vegas.”
(Enders usually does. But this weekend she had a hard time during qualifying and finally made the field in her last chance Saturday. Her 6.693-second pass put her in the No. 13 starting position.)
“I think our goal this weekend is to go out there and do what we do,” Koretsky said. “I’m confident. The car is great, so it’s all down to me. As long as the driver doesn’t make any errors, I think we'll be fine. I mean, I try to stay pretty humble. I love this sport. I love Pro Stock, and it's really just like a dream. Yeah, I feel good. I feel confident. I don't know how to word it. But with these guys behind me, I feel like every time I come to the track I have a shot to win. So that gives me a lot of confidence.
“Just the opportunity I have here is great. It really is probably the best opportunity anyone can ask for,” he said, “and we're going to try to rise to the occasion with that.”
Koretsky said if he ever has jitters, “I try to hold them back and put them aside. I don’t have many fears, though. I don't know why. I just kind of go with the flow. I skydive. I just got my private pilot’s license. Roller coasters, I'm not too fond of roller coasters. I’ll do them – I’m not scared of them, but they don't do anything for me, though. We're going to try to do that zipline. I don't have many fears. So it's good, but the nerves definitely get to me. I mean, I'm not gonna lie, but I really wasn't nervous that final round. I was more just excited for myself that ‘Hey, now I'm doing it. I'm living my dream.’ I'm trying to make everybody proud, and it comes to me and I just have to minimize the little mistakes.
“The field is so tight. I always say, ‘Man, I came into this at like the worst time in Pro Stock.’ It's so tight. Everything is so competitive. Some teams have their edge, but now everything's so tight. And now it really comes down to the driver. It always did before. I think 1,500 RPMs can make or break a win light,” Koretsky said. “[This class] definitely needs some more love but I think it's hard. It's very challenging. I'm learning new things every time I get on track.”
He said he already is comfortable on the marketing side.
“I'm a little bit younger-generation, so I like the whole flashy cars. Lucas Oil came on board this year, which was great. We have a bunch of other sponsors. Nitrofish obviously is a family-owned business. KPK Development, Summit Racing's back on board, Goodyear, Short Line Express, Rob's Automotive & Collision. So we have some very good marketing partners that keep us out here, and without them we couldn't be here. This sport and this class is definitely driven on funding, and right now with the economy the way it is, it's tough. For these companies that continue to back myself and the team is great. It shows them to be really ‘ride or die.’ They're in it for the long haul,” he said.
“It's a great thing. Every little bit helps,” he said, noting that some teams have productive hustlers on the funding front. “They work their tails off, and that's hard to do. It's a hard thing to ask the company for funding like that. Especially with the economy the way it is and you really got to be good at it and know that you could give them the return that they're helping you out and provide that, so that's what it's all about. But Justin [Ashley] definitely does a great job.
“It's a full-time job. A lot of these teams have full-time PR people or they do it themselves. It's a full-time job. There's no if ands or buts – you have a lot of people that not only need to please but you need to do the job you told them you're going to do. And that's important to keep them coming and keep the marketing partnership alive,” Koretsky said.
He acknowledged that different companies seek different types of return on their investments. Some are focused on piling up trophies. Some simply want exposure for their brands. Some use the B2B platform. Some might have other reasons to enter marketing partnerships with teams.
“Some companies are in different positions. We feel that our marketing partners want us to win. They want to see us do good, and unfortunately with NHRA stuff and Pro Stock, if you're not winning, you're not getting the TV time that you need. So it's kind of tough,” he said. “You need to do good. They want to see you do good. The media stuff that really push it out there, that's what they look for. They want to see the coverage. They want to see the advertising side of it, and some companies want to see more of the B&B side of it where you're bringing them business with other marketing partners. So that all might just go together, and that's kind of the biggest thing is to keep the flow going. So if everyone kind of can withstand each other and work together, then it’s a big circle team and I think the marketing partnership works great. You put one and one together and it turns into something, and every little bit counts. There's sponsors too big or too small. Everything counts, anything helps.”
MILADINOVICH DRAG-RACING AMBASSADOR – Funny Car owner-driver Alex Miladinovich loves to joke around, and he always has a hearty laugh at the ready.
The Hot4Teacher Toyota Camry driver could be a stand-up comedian. A visit with him in the lounge of what used to be the renowned Brad Anderson’s trailer is like attending his stand-up act at one of these Las Vegas showrooms. Miladinovich has plenty of material from the racetrack and from his experiences growing up and living in Orange, Calif.
He teases that he still is learning to spell his Yugoslavian-heritage surname. He said, “My kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Jamison, I saw in second or third grade. She said, ‘Did you ever learn how to spell your last name?’ I told her, ‘I just about got it.’”
He’s a big fan of Del Worsham. They live in the same city in Southern California, and Worsham has helped him become established. He said, “He’s right down the street” and that he even “got to see the bowling alley [at Worsham’s home]. The bowling alley does exist. I didn't get invited to the pool party, though. I would eat all his hot dogs, drink all his beer.”
Miladinovich’s wife, Marcie, who designed the Hot 4 Teacher pin-up-style logo, is no slouch in the comedy department, either. He said, “My kids gave me all my gray hair. We taught our daughters to grow up and be independent young women.” And Marcie chimed in that, “Now we think we made a mistake, because we never see them.”
But Alex Miladinovich is serious about passing along all the romance of the sport to others. He wants everyone to have a wonderful experience in coming to the drag races.
He said he “never really expected much” in the way of publicity on the FOX Sports broadcasts or in a big way from the sanctioning body or “from the scene because I was always the little guy. So I go, ‘OK, what can I do to stand out?’ I can do what the big teams can’t: getting back to being personable. When we're done working and there's nothing going on, [the crew members] have explicit instructions: If there's a family there, invite them in, let them take pictures, and give them their money's worth.
“If we were at the nostalgia races, they’d buy t-shirts. Just like the Ramones when they say they sold more T-shirts than they did albums. My nostalgia[-racing] buddy, Charlie O'Neill, had the ‘Fighting Irish’ [race car]. He’d kill it in the T-shirts at these small-town races because the Irish and the Notre Dame football team. It was a cool thing, and he did really good, so I’m like, ‘OK, we need to adapt that philosophy over the years.’
“I'm still a huge race fan,” he said, before dashing next door in the pits to shake Funny Car driver Jonnie Lindberg’s hand and introduce himself. Miladinovich said, “The experience that I was given to have a good time at the drags, if I can pass that along to the next race fan – or just a family that wants to come out and spend time that's not going because of COVID, are not flying to Hawaii or the Bahamas or going to a baseball game . . . They came to the drags and you're going to get your money's worth if you come by and see me.”
He said, “If I can inspire somebody to do better, do good . . . Not everyone's going to become a drag racer or whatever. But again, it's just that one-time interaction with somebody, and I always enjoyed that. Meeting [John] Force for the first time in high school, he signed the autograph ‘Good luck with your Camaro.’ It was the same Camaro that my brother and I were head-to-head with his Nova, and I always loved that. It made me feel good as a spectator and I figured the sport could use that.
“I think as a sport, we're selling tickets. This is a show,” he said. “Yes, I want to race and I want to win, but I always truly believe we’re entertainment for people to get away and [people] the fans want to associate with.”
Miladinovich’s father “was always into hot rods” as an auto-shop teacher who, incidentally, attended the same college at the same time with Gary Densham. He just thought drag racing was “meh.” He liked the old cars. He's into the Model T’s and Model A Fords, but he's the one who taught me all the stuff. Growing up he was a teacher as well and he said, ‘You know, we're not going to buy cool stuff. We're going to get something and fix it up.’ And he was teaching me how to weld. And working for some chassis builders through the years, you just you pick it all up. So the foundation started with Dad. Right out of high school, I started welding, and that was it. I always wanted to build a drag car.”
The story about him building his Camry race car in his brother’s garage endeared with the fans when he first came into the Funny Car ranks.
“My brother lives a couple blocks away. We do all the motor work at his place and all the chassis work at my house,” Miladinovich said. “Growing up with all the hot rods, he had a Nova, [and] I had a Camaro. And we were always [stoking a rivalry about] who was a better engine builder. There was a brotherly competition. Through the years, when I built the first nostalgia Mustang, it was like, ‘Hey I’m building the car. Can you set the motor up?’ So the pieces fell where they fell. We do the motor work, and we actually went full circle. We're building our spare chassis at my mom’s house. My brother goes, ‘Good job dude – you’re monopolizing everyone's house.’
“And when I say it's a garage, I mean all the YouTube videos I prove to people, this is the garage. The family doesn't own a warehouse or anything like that where we run the business. My parents are retired teachers and run it out of the garage,” Miladinovich said.
“Here’s the thing,” he said. “I'm a huge race fan. So if I wasn't driving this car, I’d still be here cruising around. I want to see the latest cool thing Force is doing . . . Jim Head and Kalitta's and Worsham. Del has been instrumental in this whole deal, and a lot of the teams all help in their own way. Because we live close, I try not to bother them [the Worshams]. I go over there try to be respectful of his employees. I’m friends with them all, and I understand you can't have a hanger-on. I just try to stay out of the way. I just say, ‘Hey good to see you guys.’ They've always been real helpful.”
He said that “growing up in Orange County, I’d see Robert Hight at all the restaurants. It was cool. He always had something really nice to say. And one time we were at the steakhouse.” He learned that Hight and a dining partner were there, as well. “I told the waitress, ‘I want to buy that couple’s dinner.’ I was politicking, but it was just cool. He came over and said hey, and so I always loved that. [Force and Hight] have been really generous with me on the parts. They've been really helpful to us.”
The Hot 4 Teacher logo was born of Miladinovich’s love for nostalgia. He said it’s “kind of an ode to the old days, the older generations. My grandma's little brother was a belly gunner on a B-17, and I always liked World War II pin-up art. So we were trying to come up with the name. [Marcie] didn't like any of the first things I came up with. They were all kind of rock-n-roll themed, because I always loved rock music growing up with the music of the 80s. And so that's where we ended up.
I love all the old days of drag racing, Force and Prudhomme and McEwen and all that. So I've just kind of get back to that.”
But despite a DNQ this weekend, Miladinovich said he’s becoming more satisfied with his car.
“We found some issues in Las Vegas last year and we made some changes on the chassis. And in the tune-up area we're still about in the same within a few percent and just always trying to get better,” he said. “So I'm comfortable driving in the car, because I had some vision issues in the steering. A lot of teams saw some things that ‘You may want to tweak this a little bit.’ It was just tweaks to be better.”
Joining Miladinovich on the outside of the grid in Funny Car were Jeff Diehl and Steven Densham.
PASSEY BUILDING HIS TOP FUEL PROGRAM, TORRENCE CAN TAKE SCHUMACHER CHALLENGE, ASHLEY STUDIES FOUR-WIDE FORMAT, PEDREGON SHINING, DE JORIA EYES SPECIAL GIFT FOR DAD, TWO BIKERS ABSENT AFTER WRECKS AT DARLINGTON
PASSEY LIVING HIS PASSION – Back when drag racing was really hip – and when it was really hip to say “hip” – kids all over America gathered used Coca-Cola bottles and returned them to stores to collect the deposit. (Customers paid a deposit on each bottle purchased and would get that deposit back when they returned the bottles for recycling.) Hardly a youngster did it to be environmentally conscious or beautify the community – it was all about the money. For Rob Passey, he spent many a summer afternoon in his Salt Lake City neighborhood scrounging for discarded Coke bottles so he could use the change to buy the latest issue of Super Stock magazine.
He was around 10 years old at the time, and lingering over those pages stoked his romance with the sport and kindled the idea that some day he could be like those men on the pages. He could see himself hurtling down a dragstrip at breakneck speed, throwing out a parachute that fluttered in the air with a “so-there” kind of daredevil flair, then stepping from the land rocket ship as cool as an astronaut returning from outer space. And astronauts were kings in those days, when the Space Age was gaining traction. Passey said of those pioneering race-car drivers, “I looked at those guys as a 10-year-old kid, growing up, [and thought], ‘That’s it. I’m going to drive a fuel car.’”
He got a taste of that celebrity life as a grade-schooler somewhere around 1974 or ’75. “I was just a little kid out there at Bonneville Raceway [which became Rocky Mountain Raceway and eventually was plowed under]. And at the end of the night,” he recalled, “Don Garlits was loading his car. And his winch didn’t work to get his car up there. So I got to help him push his car up on the trailer. And I lived off of that for a couple of years. How cool that was, for a 10-year-old. That’s one of your heroes.”
As Rob Passey grew up, his dreams stayed tucked in his heart. But he had to make a living, and so he parlayed his lawn-mowing experience from his high-school years into his own business with partner Darrin Loertscher – Innovative Excavation / Innovative Companies – and expanded it to include a Property Maintenance Division (among others). And today he heads that facet of the firm, giving clients a complete year-round landscaping maintenance package. Oh – and he has been a Top Fuel racer for decades, as well.
“By hook or crook and hard work and a lot of bricks, I was able to do it. I love it!” Passey said. “People don’t get it, but that, to me, is like playing in the NBA or in the NFL.”
And this weekend, Passey is racing at the NHRA’s Denso Spark Plugs Four-Wide Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He’s the local high-school hoops star on the same bench with Karl Malone, Adrian Dantley, and Pete Maravich and other Utah Jazz legends. He’s sharing the pits with Steve Torrence and Antron Brown and Doug Kalitta. Actually, Passey is more like John Stockton was with his Jazz teammates – smaller but on the same level as his racing peers.
“We’ve got probably what everybody else has, except we don’t have the latest, greatest, state-of-the-art clutch programs (we still run a five-disc clutch, and a lot of people have a six-disc). And I don’t have a $25,000 supercharger. But other than those two things, I think we’re on par with everybody,” he said. “We know we don’t have the finances to go knock heads, but we can get in the show and then it’s anybody’s guess from there. You never know. We’ll keep beating on this thing and see what happens.”
He said, “We’re still a very small fish in a big pond, but we still enjoy the opportunity to go to these events and line up against the best in the world. I’ve been doing it a long time. And I don’t know how you define success. Everybody defines success a little differently. I’m just grateful to be out here, still having an opportunity to do it.”
Passey, who sticks to regional races for the most part, most recently competed right here at The Strip last fall at the Finals.
“We actually went to two races last year,” Passey said of the pandemic-interrupted 2020 schedule. “[At] the Winternationals, on our only qualifying attempt, we had the throttle hang up on the burnout and found out we had some debris run through the entire fuel system. We decided to play it safe. We decided we had better get the car home and go through it. Be safe. Be smart. Went home and tore everything apart.
“Then we all know what happened in mid-March – COVID happened. I went back to Indy [in] early summer, picked up some parts, and updated our equipment. Bought some motor parts and heads and stepped our program up that way. Got the help of [veteran crew chief] Johnny West at the end of last year. Went to the finals in Las Vegas. Johnny West was helping us out, and with the one-day qualifying format, we ran out of time and on our one and only attempt had a small fuel leak and got shut off,” he said.
This year his team has some new faces. “Most everybody’s new. They’re mechanical-minded guys and they’re taking to it well,” Passey said, “but they’ve not worked on fuel cars before. That was a little bit of the premise of getting Johnny West up over the [past] weekend – and a couple of other areas he wanted to look at in the car that we’ve been talking about through the offseason. He’s been helping us go through all of our stuff. He wanted to get the crew kind of seasoned, as well. I feel pretty good, so we’ll see how it goes.”
West didn’t urge Passey to get more bells and whistles. Instead, he assessed what Passey has and is convinced that’s plenty sufficient to work with.
“I am very happy with the progress we're all making as a team,” he said. “We’re chomping on the bit to get out there. We made a lot of wholesale changes. The car [which longtime friend Eric Mattinson technically owns] is a little older McKinney car. It has very few laps on it since being front- and back-halved. We have made a ton of changes to the fuel and clutch management system, bigger heads, etc.”
With some more work and essentially a new wave of volunteer crew members to soak up advice from West, Passey is rejuvenated. The Excavator is ready to rock.
“We’re ready to go out and have a little bit of fun and shake the car down,” he said of his plan for this weekend. “We kind of know where we’re at. We think we’ve got a low-3.90, 310-mile-an-hour car, and that’s what we’re aiming for a little bit. Once we prove to ourselves that we can do that on a consistent basis, then we’ll turn it up a little bit.
“Back in the late ‘90s, early 2000s, we knew we were back-of-the-pack and didn’t have everything, but boy, by 2010, it was like, ‘Wow – we’re really behind.’ Now we’re closing the gap again a little bit,” Passey said. “Johnny’s a guy who’s going to take care of your equipment. We just don’t want to get over our skis. We’ve done that too many times. The plan for this weekend’s race is to make a 500-foot squirt on the first pass, if the data we collect, looks good, we'll take it farther and progress from there, through the weekend.”
He didn’t expect to make a full pass in Friday’s lone session: “We’re going to go out there and go 500 feet, and if things look good, we’ll go 800 feet. And if things look good, we’ll take it to the stripe. But if we make the first [qualifying attempt] and after 500 feet it doesn’t look good, we’ll line it up the next qualifying session and go 500 again. I don’t want to say we’ll use it as a test session, but at least the first couple of runs will be.”
This won’t be an ordinary drag race – and that definitely is extraordinary for Passey. He said, “I have never competed in the four-wide format. It should be interesting, We have got good help. The plan is to learn from the guidance of Mr. West and others, listen, and stay in our lane. We know we have good components on the car. We just need to learn how to make it run safely to the stripe and progress from there.”
Initially he said he had penciled in Pomoma, at a traditional February Winternationals, and then Phoenix on his 2021 schedule. But the Pomona race was slated for April, and the Phoenix race was shelved altogether. “Now,” he said, “the plan is Las Vegas, Denver, possibly Sonoma, Las Vegas in October, possibly the World Finals. But he’s rethinking that. “For us, looking at the NHRA and how they cut the purse down, that does kind of hurt,” Passey said. “It kind of throws a little kink in our program in that way. We’ll mainly stick to the West Coast. We’d like to do seven or eight races in a good year. And that’s dependent on if we get the car to do what we think it’s going to do – repeat and be safe. We’ve got a fair amount of parts, but that can get eaten up in a hurry if we’re off our game.”
He has some fresh funding this weekend. “We have Salt Depot, a manufacturer of salt de-icing products and water-softener pellets. We also have Degeneratesgolf.com helping out,” he said.
Passey’s racing roots are entwined with those of the previous generation.
“My stepfather ran a B/Econo Dragster back in the mid-70s then built a nitro Funny Car around 1980 or so. Don Mattinson has been running Top Fuel around Salt Lake and around since the mid-70s. The late Jack Harris, who had the front-motor nostalgia car, they were partners for a few years, back in the early ’70s, running Top Fuel. So Eric’s dad, Don Mattinson, he’s been in fuel cars from about ’75 to the present. Around 2010, he said, ‘I’m done.’ Then I went off and did some driving with Terry Totten,” he said.
“I drove for Terry Totten for about seven years while he was getting his program from the infancy stages and moving on. He wanted to have some fun and get his license. At that point, we had our car sitting, and it was for sale. I wasn’t quite done yet,” Passey said. “I wanted to put the band back together again, so Don said, ‘Hey, I’ll tell you what – I will put this car back together and give it to you guys. Eric Mattinson’s the car owner. He and I partnered up and did all the necessary changes on the front half of the car and just updated the computer and the rear end and just a bunch of stuff.
“So Eric basically owns it all but we’re partners. The nucleus – Don, Scott Stratford, myself, and Eric Mattinson, we’ve all been together since about ’81. Johnny [West] was asking me, ‘OK – how does this all work?’ Basically, Don’s like a father to me. It’s not your normal partnership. Eric works for me in my business. We’re like brothers, anyway. We’ve worked together for 25 years on a daily basis and have raced together since we were young kids. It’s kind of a family,” he said.
Stratford keeps the car at his shop and is the fabricator and clutch specialist, although he and Don Mattinson are stepping back in more of advisory roles these days.
Passey’s story is one of passion and perseverance, one that’s almost ancestral. But it’s one he thinks still has plenty of chapters to write. His team has suggested that he ought to tell his story more often, but Passey said, “I want to have something tangible to talk about. We’ve got a story, but at the same time, I want to have a plan. We’re getting there.”
CAN TORRENCE MATCH SCHUMACHER? – In this city famous for oddsmaking, it’s unclear if new daddy Steve Torrence can match Tony Schumacher’s 2005 feat. Torrence and wife Natalie welcomed daughter Haven Charli into the world April 7.
Back in the fall of 2005, when Schumacher’s daughter, Jackie, was born, the pre-Torrence Top Fuel dominator (and still the most successful in titles and victories) went on a tear of five consecutive victories (at Reading, Chicago, Dallas, Las Vegas, and Pomona) on his way to the third of his eight series championships.
If stats could trigger a run for Torrence, consider this: The reigning and three-time champ from Kilgore, Texas, has overcome his distaste for the non-traditional format by winning four of the past five four-wide races, at this track and at zMAX Dragway at Concord, N.C. In those most recent five four-wide affairs, Torrence has a 13-1 elimination record with a perfect mark in four final-round appearances. And after the Camping World Drag Racing Series has been idle for a month, two of its next three races are four-wide events.
Torrence might have a way to go to equal Schumacher’s overall accomplishments. But he might have the edge on Schumacher in off-track achievements since he last earned a four-wide trophy. In that short time, Torrence has become a husband, father, and an accomplished welder to add to his diverse personal resume. He also is skilled in leathercraft, firearms, calf roping, cattle ranching, hunting, business development, and business management.
Then again, maybe Schumacher has the slight edge. He said his 15-year-old daughter “still says she was my good-luck charm.” Torrence’s daughter hasn’t spoken a word yet.
ALWAYS LEARNING, HUSTLING – Justin Ashley this weekend is getting his first chance to race in a four-wide format. But with the amount of preparation the second-year Top Fuel racer has put in, he might not find the whole experience all that daunting. He said he simply isn’t going to concentrate on all the things that might go wrong and instead stick to his own habits and trust them.
The Strutmasters.com/Auto Shocker Dragster driver said, “I talked to Antron Brown, and I also talked to my crew chief, Mike Green. I have been watching Four-Wide National highlights on YouTube, as well. What I have seen and heard is you really need to pay attention when you are in Lanes 2 and 3, because the Christmas Tree looks different. I am just going to really pay attention to what I have to do and not overthink it. I have a good routine, and I will just follow that.”
That methodical approach has earned him the reputation of being one of the nitro-classes’ quickest drivers at the starting line in the nitro ranks. On the way to NHRA rookie of the year honors last season, he led the Top Fuel class in average reaction time. During the season-starting Gatornationals last month, he used an impressive light (.034 seconds) to upset higher-qualified Brittany Force in the first round.
He called that opening-round victory “huge” and said, “I knew Mike Green had a good first-round tune-up, and I needed to just do my job on the starting line. We made our quickest pass of the event, and I cut a good light. That is the kind of teamwork we have to have to be successful this season.”
But he hasn’t been content to go by the seat of his britches. Ashley said before ever traveling to Las Vegas that “the NHRA is doing a review session for some of the Top Alcohol teams on Thursday night, and I am planning on checking that out.”
Curiously, Ashley doesn’t appear to be apprehensive. He just wants to know all he can, so he knows what to expect. “I like the variety and the challenge. It will be exciting for sure,” he said. “On Sunday, it will be strange with four race cars on track. I have had drivers tell me if you smoke the tires downtrack, don’t give up, because in the first two rounds you just need to be either the first or second car to the stripe.”
He has been hustling on the sponsorship side of the business during the offseason and month-long layoff and continues to do that. And it has been paying off. He’s hosting guests from Auto Shocker at the event, a result of his wintertime sponsorship extension. KATO Fastening Systems also renewed during the off-season, and Ashley added new partners RISE Brewing Company and The Daily Crave to his team. The latter two grew from Ashley’s strong marketing relationship with Menards. Just last week, the 26-year-old rising star finalized a sponsorship with Red Line Oil. His car reflects that partnership this weekend.
RECOVERING FROM COVID – Mike Salinas, Top Fuel winner of the previous Denso Four-Wide Nationals in 2019, remains home at San Jose, Calif., with his family as they recover from a bout of coronavirus. He and his Scrappers Racing team that includes daughters Jianna (Pro Stock Motorcycle) and Jasmine (Top Alcohol Dragster) are expected to return to the Camping World Drag Racing Series at the next event, the April 30-May 2 Lucas Oil NHRA Southern Nationals, at Commerce, Ga.
The family contracted COVID-19 shortly after the Gatornationals, where Jasmine Salinas experienced a scary blowover that sent her over the opposite guardwall. She was unhurt in that but caught in the crosshairs of the virus, as her family slogged through many of the typical symptoms.
The family members are feeling better and have returned to work, but they decided to stay home another weekend before continuing their racing season.
“We’re doing OK. We just aren’t 100 percent yet,” Mike Salinas said.
Team representative Melanie Johnson said, “They hope the extra weekend of recovery will ensure they are well rested and mentally prepared for the busy race schedule in the upcoming months. With many back-to-back events scheduled this summer, Scrappers Racing remains concerned about the well-being of all staff, crew, and fans in the NHRA.”
FORCE + VEGAS = SUCCESS – Brittany Force, who is the national record-holder for both elapsed time and speed, set the speed mark here at this venue at 338.17 mph during qualifying in November 2019. She started eliminations out of the No. 2 spot behind No. 1 Leah Pruett, but she eclipsed Pruett’s track E.T. record with a 3.652-second pass in the final round to beat Steve Torrence for her 10th overall victory. So it’s no surprise that she said, “Vegas is one of my favorite tracks on the circuit, and winning at your favorite track is something that can't be beat.” The Flav-R-Pac Dragster driver also is trying to become the first John Force Racing driver to earn a four-wide victory here. She was the first woman, in 2016, to win in the four-wide format at zMAX Dragway at Concord, N.C.
Force expressed appreciation for her team that David Grubnic and Mac Savage lead. “It was a good to be back with my team, on a racetrack, finding our routine again after a year away,” she said of the Gainesville, Fla., season-opener. “We have an amazing team with Grubnic returning as crew chief along with Mac. Our same team carried over from when we last completed February of 2020. I think that speaks for itself. It proves how dedicated this team is, they stood by JFR through our difficult decision to step out last season. I'm proud to be returning with every single one of them.”
WEST BY WEST BY WEST – Veteran tuner Johnny West has his hands full this weekend. He’s helping Rob Passey and fellow Top Fuel competitor Jim Maroney, along with the Jason Rupert-owned Funny Car team with Jonnie Lindberg driving.
Rupert is fielding a brand-new nitro Funny Car, but he doesn’t have his license this week. They went to Bakersfield in early December and made a couple of laps. But he’s having Jonnie Lindberg drive the car this weekend. And they’re going to stay over Monday and try to get Jason licensed.
Rupert, the six-time Nostalgia Funny Car champion, acquired the Funny Car operation of the late Steve Plueger and upgraded it with parts from Don Schumacher Racing and a Mustang body from John Force Racing. And he had planned to drive the car here in its Camping World Drag Racing Series debut. But he didn’t complete his licensing process in time, despite three promising incremental runs during testing this winter at Bakersfield, Calif. His goal is to complete his license upgrade procedures during testing here Monday.
So Rupert asked two-time Top Alcohol Funny Car champion Lindberg to drive the car at this event. Lindberg drove for Jim Head from 2017 to 2019 and last summer drove as a substitute for Bob Tasca III as he fought off coronavirus. Lindberg also is tuning a Top Alcohol Funny Car this weekend – a brand-new entry for Brian Hough that Lindberg built at his chassis shop at Brownsburg, Ind.
The Rupert Motorsports team plans to be a fixture at West Coast events – with livery familiar to oldtimers. Its Bays & Rupert and Black Plague names on the body harken back to the Funny Cars that Rupert’s late father, Frank, and racing partner Richard Bays campaigned in the 1970s. They’ll do it with financial support from include Lucas Oil, TMS Titanium, GRP Connecting Rods, Blaklader Workwear, and CP-Carrillo.
FOUR-WIDE RACE IS LIKE A BOX OF CHOCOLATES – Freshly crowned three-time Funny Car champion Matt Hagan is starting to know what to expect when he comes to a four-wide event – and that’s that a racer never knows what to expect.
“The four-wide format always makes it really wild. You never know what you’re going to get,” the Mopar Dodge Charger driver said. “You have to get to the finish line. You can’t see what the other cars in the other lanes are doing. You don’t know even know if they left the starting line. So it makes it tricky as a driver, knowing you have to go to the finish line. It doesn’t matter if you have a cylinder out, you’re on fire, or whatever, but that’s what makes four-wide racing so exciting. Anything can happen, and a lot of times it usually does. But it’s only a couple of times a year that we run them four-wide, and it’s a great show for the fans. I’ve won a four-wide before, and I’ve also not staged the car at a four-wide before. It’s Vegas and hopefully, luck is with us and we have a good race.”
Looking back at his first-round loss at the season-opener at Gainesville, Fla., Hagan said, “We had what would’ve been a really close race against Bob Tasca. We just need to improve on our qualifying position. We’ve got some new guys on our car this year, so we changed some things and responsibilities around on the team, and I think it’ll be good.”
He posted the class’ first three-second pass Friday, at 3.946 seconds. That was low E.T. until Robert Hight clocked a 3.922-second run.
SOMETHING HE HASN’T BOUGHT – Alexis De Joria’s dad, John Paul De Joria (of Paul Mitchell hair-care products, Tequila Patrόn, RoKit phones, “Shark Tank” TV show appearances, and more), just turned 80 years old this past Tuesday. And surely the entrepreneur/philanthropist has just about every material possession he ever could want. But his Funny Car owner-driver daughter has a belated birthday gift in mind for him – yes, something he never has bought for himself: an NHRA Wally trophy.
Now all she has to do is go out and earn it in her first Four-Wide event at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
She has advanced to the final quad at the four-wide Carolina Nationals in 2014, but, she said, “I have never won an actual four-wide race yet. My dad . . . will be at the races. I would love to give him a Wally as a present.”
The co-owner of the ROKiT Bandero Premium Tequila Toyota Camry Funny Car (along with DC Motorsports partner Del Worsham) has had success at this venue. She won here in 2014 and 2016, before the track underwent a major reconstruction that added two additional lanes.
It might be helpful for Alexis De Joria that no pro driver has taken on the four-wide feat in more than a year. The event was dropped from the 2020 schedule because of the pandemic.
With a short – but productive - inaugural season for DC Motorsports – under her belt, she came out of the 2021 gate as strong as she finished the previous campaign. At the season-opening Gatornationals, she qualified No. 2 on the strength of her 3.914-second elapsed time. She had finished the 2020 season with five consecutive top-five starts for a consistency no other pro driver matched.
De Joria’s faith in crew chiefs Worsham and Nicky Boninfante and what she called their “amazing handle on the tune-up on this Toyota Funny Car” has given her supreme confidence.
“Del and Nicky work so well together. When I get strapped in, I know I am going to have a great shot at a top-qualifying spot or a round-win. Having them on my team lets me focus on my job as a driver. This whole ROKiT Bandero Premium Tequila team really came together down the home stretch of last season, and we got off to a solid start in Gainesville. I am expecting great things this season, starting in Las Vegas.”
What’s more, she’s hoping to keep alive her streak of no Round 1 losses. She has reached at least the quarterfinals at each of the past six races and racked up three semifinal appearances.
HIGHT WANTS MORE THAN RUNNER-UP FINISH – Like most of his Camping Word Drag Racing Series colleagues, Robert Hight is thrilled to get back to the racetrack after a late start to the season and then a month layoff. The Funny Car runner-up at the Gatornationals said he’s ready to have the Automobile Club of Southern California Chevy Camaro back in its winning form. The 51-time winner said of the Gainesville race, “We had some gremlins, but we had some luck on our side, too,” Hight said. “It’s a good weekend when you get to the final, but we beat ourselves. So it’s time to do some polishing and get this Auto Club Chevy running the way we know how.”
Hight has won this spring event at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway three times in 2007, 2011, and 2012 – but not since the race went to a four-wide format in 2018. He has also won the fall event here twice, in 2009 and 2015. The Western edition of the four-wides hasn’t been his strong suit, but he has won twice at the Carolinas Nationals Four-Wide event in the spring at North Carolina’s zMAX Dragway.
Hight said, “Racing in Las Vegas is always a good time. I’ve had some success there, but I’m looking to add a Four-Wide Nationals victory to my list. There’s a lot more going on when it’s four-wide, but as long as you stay focused on what you’re doing and don’t worry about who’s next to you, it’s just like any other race. Whoever is in those other lanes, I’m not treating it any differently. The fans are the ones who really benefit from racing four-wide. Over 40,000 horsepower, the ground really shakes.”
Hight has qualified No. 1 here seven times, four in the spring and three in the fall. He’ll be chasing his first No. 1 in the four-wide format at the venue, something he has done three times at the Charlotte four-wide event.
EAGER ‘FOUR’ MORE – Ron Capps has been missing his four-wide races.
“This four-wide race in Vegas could not come soon enough,” he said. “We missed both four-wide events last year, [at] Vegas and zMAX, so obviously the fans showed us that they missed it, as well, considering Vegas sold out quickly,” the NAPA Auto Care Dodge Charger driver said. “As drivers, we’re always excited about four-wide. You have to approach it in a different way, because it’s a completely different scenario to stage the car, and everything you do on Sunday is different. I’ve been lucky enough to have a four-wide trophy from the past. Hopefully, our NAPA AutoCare team can continue the momentum, and I would love nothing better than to get a trophy early in the season with my new teammates.”
The new crew has Dean “Guido” Antonelli and John Medlen at the helm and Capps having fun getting to know them and how best to mesh with them.
“We obviously had a lot of moving parts with the new team,” Capps said, “and me getting used to ‘Guido’ and Medlen’s tuning styles. Getting acclimated with my new NAPA team was so much fun. We transferred all of that energy into Gainesville, and to get the first Camping World No. 1 qualifier hat was awesome. It was a great way to start the 2021 season, but we can’t wait to get [on with] the four-wide.”
The 2016 Funny Car champion has started from the No. 1 qualifying position at the past two events (Gainesville 2021, Las Vegas Finals 2020)
CRUZIN’ TO A GREAT START – Two-time Funny Car champion Cruz Pedregon is enjoying his best start to a season in almost a decade. It’s probably a little too early to be celebrating high rankings in the standings. However, it‘s notable that Pedregon entered this weekend third in the order. That’s the highest placing he has had since the 2013 season. He was in second place at the fall Dallas race that year. But 2013 was a year in which Pedregon was no worse than third for 14 straight events. He finished fourth in the standings that season but won four times in five finals.
After a semifinal showing at the Gatornationals to begin the season, Pedregon is hopeful – and thankful he was able to secure the services of crew chiefs John Collins and Rip Reynolds and the entire crew from Don Schumacher Racing that helped keep Tommy Johnson Jr. a perennial contender.
"We've got good data and the confidence of going to the semis our first time out with this new team that will give us the momentum we need to do well at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway," the Snap-on Tools Dodge owner-driver said. "John Collins has had cars he's tuned in the final rounds at both of the previous Vegas four-wides, so we're eager to give it our best shot."
Pedregon already is seeing consecutive 3.9-second passes.
"It feels really good to be a contender again," he said.
He is one of only five Funny Car drivers who've won at least one championship and five “majors” – the Winternationals, Gatornationals, Englishtown, U.S. Nationals, and the Finals and one of only seven Funny Car drivers who've won four majors and a championship.
COUGHLIN QUIETLY ANALYZING, LEARNING – Twelve years ago, Troy Coughlin Jr. earned his first national-event victory, in the Super Comp class. It was here at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. And in this gaudy, “Look at me!” kind of city, the teenager turned out to be quite shy, not knowing quite what to say, certainly not over the top, Vegas style.
"I certainly remember that win in 2009. I was pretty much in shock and could barely talk when I got interviewed at the top end. I'm still a person that keeps everything inside,” he said.
He since has driven in a number of classes, including difficult Pro Modified and Top Fuel. Just like when he won here in Super Comp, he’s driving a Jegs.com-branded race car today. This time it’s a Pro Stock Chevy Camaro for Elite Motorsports. And just like a dozen years ago, if he were to claim his first factory hot-rod class victory in his first four-wide race, Coughlin probably wouldn’t display any wild celebration.
“I celebrate in my mind and heart,” he said. “I know I don't show much outward emotion, but believe me, I'm excited when we do well. I just don't have the perfect thing to say come to mind right away like my uncles. They're all so smooth on camera. I'm just different."
He’s as smooth as his uncles behind the wheel, though. He was runner-up to Greg Anderson at the Gatornationals last month to start the season. And he’s hungry for more.
"We are tuned-up and ready to roll," Coughlin said. "Luck was on our side in Gainesville, and we gained a lot of momentum by starting so well. There is no limit to what we can accomplish and there's plenty of goals to set our sights on this weekend in Las Vegas.”
He said he marvels at the effort his crew at Elite Motorsports puts in to make his car fast.
"It's incredible to me to see the amount of work the guys do every day to make these cars quicker," he said. "I remember when we had our own program at JEGS and I'd get to work at 7 a.m. and the guys were already there working on the motor and the chassis and then at 7 p.m. when I was leaving they'd still be right there grinding away. These guys are exactly the same way. Their dedication is unmatched, but it's what it takes to win all the world championships they've collected.”
Mark Ingersoll is his crew chief.
"I'm doing everything I can to rise to their level of intensity. While they're making music in the dyno room, I'm constantly watching film of our runs and analyzing data,” Coughlin said. “I'll hit the practice tree for hours and make runs in my head over and over. I always see ways I can improve, and I think it should always be that way. There is no ceiling for knowledge.”
QUICK TRIP TO BEACH – Flanked by Steve Johnson and Matt Smith, with Scotty Pollacheck out on the left wing, Pro Stock Motorcycle’s Ryan Oehler made a respectable 6.953-second pass Friday afternoon. But “Flyin’ Ryan” sailed into the sand trap at the end of the course. He and his motorcycle appeared to be relatively unscathed – and Oehler is fourth in the provisional order. Meanwhile, Matt Smith – who wrapped up his fourth championship in his previous visit here – claimed the provisional No. 1 spot with a 6.891-second elapsed time.
NO REAL STORY – Biker Chip Ellis is a man of few words, a no-frills kind of guy. So it’s no surprise that he used fewer than 20 words to describe his gig this weekend with Matt Smith Racing: “This all happened Monday at 10 a.m. Matt called me. I said yes. Booked a flight. And that’s it.”
BIKE CLASS HAS TWO MIAs – What happened a week or so ago almost a continent away has affected the Pro Stock Motorcycle class here this weekend. NASCAR racers talk about a “Darlington Stripe” from Darlington Raceway, home of the Southern 500. But a week ago, Darlington Dragway at Hartsville, S.C., laid some pretty nasty stripes on more than one NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle racer. Because of those injuries and crashed bikes, Joey Gladstone and Chris Bostick had to ditch their plans of competing here at Las Vegas this weekend. David Barron managed to get his bike repaired and his body in racing condition and is on the property here.
Gladstone was roughed up the worst among the three. Last Friday evening he shared on his Facebook page, “I have four broken ribs, a bruised lung, broken collarbone, broken shoulder blade, road rash absolutely everywhere, and a concussion. I’m messed up pretty bad, but the doctor said I got extremely lucky to be able to see another day. I just wanted to thank everyone who has reached out to me and sent up some prayers. I’ll start messaging back soon, but this post is already painful enough to do without skin on my fingertips. Goodnight, everyone. Thanks again for the prayers.”
Two days later, he provided some details, including the fact his shoe “was around my kneecap when I came to a stop” and that both gloves were ripped away in his fall “and now my palms are shaved down to the white meat.” He said he believes his helmet saved his life. He said that day that he was “recovering faster than normal and my pain is under control.” Gladstone was released Monday from McLeod Medial Center at Florence, S.C. He said, “I have a long road ahead of me, but we are going to take the right steps to make sure the comeback will be stronger than the setback! Thanks for the love and prayers.”
Tim Hailey’s Eat My Ink website reported that Gladstone wrecked at the top end of the track on the “Gravedigger” nitrous grudge Suzuki Hayabusa. He was testing it before entering some Pro Street XDA races later this year, according to Cecil Towner, tuner-builder for Reed Motorsports and HTP Motorsports.
Reed Racing saw another of its riders, Chris Bostick, go down the day before on an EBR model. David Barron, who like Gladstone and Bostick had planned to race at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in four-wide fashion, had his mishap about a half-hour after Bostick’s.
Barron wrecked in the same lane as Bostick but father into the shutoff area and consequently escaped with fewer bumps and bruises. Barron, who receives tuning advice from the Reed team, had just bought the bike from Reed.
Hailey quoted Bostick as saying, “I watched his pass, standing at the starting line in my socks. He didn’t get in town until [mid-afternoon] and he didn’t have a first pass early, like the rest of us did. He had a great run, his career-best, as well. We were both in the right lane, and his accident was just a little further downtrack than mine. His bike was not torn up as bad, and he was doing good after a scary slide. I rode in the golf cart with him, bringing him back to the pits from the crash site.”
As for Bostick, he said his left hand was noticeably swollen and that he already had determined that day that even if a replacement bike became available, he would not compete at Las Vegas. He did say, “I definitely got banged up a bit” but credited his NJK leathers for minimizing the damage. “Biggest injury was my pride, just part of the sport,” he said to Hailey. “Thankfully Jesus was watching over me as He always is.”
Bostick was making his first full pass on the Reed EBR, and he said, “It went as straight as an arrow and had unbelievable power.” Proof was his career-best 6.8398-second elapsed time at 194.05 mph. But Bostick told Hailey he grabbed too much front brake. “Combined with the rough, cracked downhill shutdown area, resulted in a violent crash at over 190 miles an hour. Definitely not the way you want to end your day of testing, preparing for the upcoming Las Vegas race.”
Gladstone had said he was pleased with the way Bostick handled the bike, because he had set it up so Bostick would record his personal-best E.T. and he did that. “When you lock up the front tire on these things, the bike is dancing on the edge of going down. I imagine that if we were at a different track we wouldn’t be talking about this,” Gladstone said.
Bostick reportedly will be on the track at Atlanta, on a new Mike Mullaney-built Haybusa. He was riding the Reed motorcycle because Mullaney was having trouble receiving parts on time for a Las Vegas debut. Bostick said he “can’t say enough great things about the motorcycle Cory Reed and Joey Gladstone supplied me with. Unfortunately, the shutdown area of the dragstrip wasn’t my friend.”
TRIVIA QUIZ – Q: How many days since Camping World Drag Racing Series pros last raced side-by-side-by-side-by-side?
A: According to Torrence Racing public-relations representative Dave Densmore, the last time was 719 days ago, at ZMax Dragway, at Concord, N.C.
LIMIT OF 10,000 – The NHRA is billing the Denso Spark Plugs Four-Wide Nationals as a “sellout,” although the locally imposed fan limit of 10,000 per day represents about 40-50 percent of The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s full capacity. The facility continues to observe strict public-health protocols (face masks at all times, proper social distancing, digital tickets, cashless concession and souvenir stands).Last month’s estimated daily crowd for the facility’s NASCAR was 12,500, making the NHRA race the second-most-attended event in Southern Nevada since March 2020, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal newspaper.
Last November’s NHRA Finals was the first live-audience sporting event at Las Vegas since the pandemic hit.
Funny Car’s J.R. Todd said the sizeable crowd at Gainesville earlier this season gave him hope that “this is a sign of things to come so we can run all of the events on the Camping World schedule and we can get fans back in the stands, because they are the ones that make this happen.”