2022 NHRA CAROLINA NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
ANTRON BROWN RIGHT IN CHAMPIONSHIP MIX AFTER CHARLOTTE VICTORY - Antron Brown still has plenty of swagger.
Brown, the time NHRA Top Fuel world champion, in his first year owning and operating AB Motorsports, is right in the mix to win world title No. 4 – especially after Sunday.
Brown topped the competition at the Betway Carolina Nationals in Charlotte, culminating with his holeshot final round win over Justin Ashley.
Brown clocked a 3.672-second elapsed time at 335.73 mph while Ashley had a 3.671-second lap at 333.99 mph.
The difference was at the starting line as Brown had a .035 reaction time compared to Ashley’s .055 light.
This was Brown’s 71st career NHRA Wally and his 55th in Top Fuel. Brown also has 16 Pro Stock Motorcycle race wins. More importantly it was Brown’s third win this season – he also won in Topeka, Kan., and Indianapolis – and third in the last five races.
On Sunday, Brown defeated Austin Prock, Brittany Force, Clay Millican and then Ashley, the No. 1 qualifier.
Brown moved from fourth to second in the points standings just 43 points behind leader Ashley. The six-race Countdown to the Championship continues with its third race the NHRA Midwest Nationals in St. Louis Sept. 30 through Oct. 2.
“I'll tell you what, our guys... starting from the top, Brian Corradi and Mark Oswald, Brad Mason, this whole Matco Tools, Lucas Oil team with Toyota in the back. We've been working on it,” Brown said. “The engineers at Toyota, and all our guys, they've been working hard, saying, ‘How can we make this thing better?’ And when we won in Topeka, it was a hot track. We won in Indy, the track started getting good, where we were running high 60s, like 69, 70 flats.
“We have a lot of runs. We ran Brittany. We didn't complete that run. We actually had our little balance wheel in the front of the motor, that's our degree wheel, it actually took out... It actually took out our deal and shut our car off. The car was on a 68 or 67 run on that pass. Because that's what we knew we had to run to beat that team. And we got through that round. And then when we ran Clay, he dropped low ET on everybody, we didn't change nothing. Same thing. We came up there with the car dialed in, tuned in. And we got out there and went out there. We ran good. We ran a 68, 7 against him, and he ran a 69. And we knew we had to do that. And Justin, he was dropping bombs on everybody all day long. And we knew that's going to be a tough round match up. Especially with him cutting .025 lights.”
Brown said Ashley’s father, Mike, a former national event winner and team owner, was prophetic in what he told him.
“Mike Ashley said before we started this race, he goes, ‘It's going to be you and Justin in the final,’” Brown said. “He (predicts) stuff, which is scary, and it happens. And we got there, and we got in the final. That was just a fun final. We knew Mike's going to throw the kitchen sink at it, him and Tommy D. Brian and Mark were all throwing a kitchen sink at it. We would borrow our neighbor's kitchen sink and put at it. So, when we got there in that final, we just went there and go, ‘This is fun,’ because we won as a team, as a collective group.”
The matchup between Brown and Ashley was essentially a heavyweight bout with teammates.
“They're on the one side of Lucas Oil Hospitality, we're on the other side,” Brown said. “And we push each other all the time. Justin and I knew we were giving everything we had on that start line. When I went in there, I staged the car, and he came in, and that tree was, it felt like it took forever to come on. And I was like this, ‘Oh, it ain't come on yet. Oh, it still ain't on.’ When I saw that little hint of yellow, brother, my foot had no hesitation. I didn't say, ‘Go.’ It just went down. And I'm like, ‘Oh, we're side by side.’ I could feel his rumble of his car next to me. And I'm like, ‘Oh Lord, just don't drop in the hole. Stay lit, stay lit’ and that car stayed lit. I couldn't even see what happened on the scoreboard, but I don't know how fast we went, but I tried to keep that car straight as an arrow.
“Then when I saw the light blinking on at the end of the finish line, on the side guard rail, I said, ‘We got it.’ I was like, ‘Oh Lord.’ I was going crazy, and giving the Lord all the glory, when we came around that corner. And it was just like something just tapping me and going, ‘We did it, we did it.’ And man, I know in December when I lost my grandma, it made it so special because we were going through all our trials and tribulations and all these hard times. I just remember her little face, and her little hands, and her arms. And she used to shake them like this, with both fists together. And she used to say, ‘Y'all go get 'em boy. Y'all get 'em. Y'all get 'em.’ And she used to close her eyes tight together and she used to smile. And she never opened her mouth.
Cause she never wanted people to see that she ain't got no teeth. And she used to do that with all her strength and will. And that image just stuck in my head. When I turned that corner, and I looked up, and I said, ‘Grams that's for you.’”
The race against Justin Ashley was somewhat ironic since it was Brown who let Ashley get in his dragster in 2018 after the Norwalk, Ohio, event which got Ashley moving forward into a Top Fuel career.
“When you look at stuff, like the movie, everybody saw Rocky III? When Apollo showed Rocky the tricks of the trade,” Brown said. “I showed that kid the tricks of the trade. But this is the true, honest to God's truth. You can teach people as much as you want to teach them. Either you got it, or you don't. And that kid had it from Day 1. And that kid is dangerous. You know what I mean? When you look at it, he's only getting better. He's not like he's made the pinnacle. This is his second year of racing, and he's in the points lead for a championship with the toughest field this class has ever seen. Period? When I look at Justin, he's the creme of the creme, and Mike Green is in true championship stride, and he’s got Tommy DeLago back.
“Dustin Davis. He is not playing as an owner, and he's got all the right tools and everything necessary. For us, we're just raising a level up. You know what I mean? We got to step up. If we want to compete for this championship, we got to step up. And I look at Justin, like go up and embrace him. He's the toughest competitor out there, period. Hands down. If you ask anybody out here, ‘Do you want to race Justin Ashley?’ I guarantee you, every driver will say, ‘Hell no.’ Cause that's how tough the kid is. I mean he spits out 40s shadow stage blinking above 30s. The kid is razor sharp and his focus is unreal. For me, where I'm at, is like, ‘All right. I taught you that move.’”
The day Ashley took laps in his dragster is one Brown has not forgotten.
“I remember every day because we saw the kid get in the car,” he said. “Justin got in the car. Justin's been at this sport for a long time. Remember when Mike owned our team in 2009. He was there every step of the way. People don't realize, Justin don't talk a lot about it. He was a hell of an athlete. Played football. The boy is sharp, quick. He's athletic. And he's got that focus where things don't get to him. You know what I mean? He's not bouncing. You never see Justin bouncing all over the place. You ever see him? He's like a cat on the prowl, about to pounce on his prey. Cat ain't bouncing around when the prey comes. He just jumps on it. And I told him that. I said, ‘Got to be calm, cool, relax, breathe, focus. Just don't let it get to you. Can't sweat the small stuff.’ He's overcome a lot of things in his journey and now, he's running for that championship.
“We're (No. 1) and (No. 2) in the points, and it's going to be a dog fight. But we got a lot of other competitors that's peaking at the right time. Like Clay Millican, Josh Hart, Steve Torrence, the four-time champ, and Brittany Force, Austin (Prock) and Mike Salinas. There are so many great cars. Doug Kalitta is coming on strong. Shawn (Langdon). There are so many cars that can win this championship. But the rounds are getting slim. (There are) 16 rounds to win this championship. So, our focus is going up to (get) everyone that we can get.”
Brown acknowledged he was ready at the starting line against Ashley.
“I got to dip and bob and miss those blows, and I got to counter,” Ashley said. “I'm countering the best I can. I don't know if I (will) go 20s, but I know I can go 30s. That's when we pulled out of that final round, I pulled out my best blow, and Brian and Mark and the boys gave us a car that can compete. And it was good enough this weekend to get that win.”
There’s no doubt what Brown’s crew chiefs Corradi and Oswald mean to him.
“Well, one thing about it is that Brian and Mark are like Batman and Robin,” Brown said. “Then you got Brad (Mason) in the background. He's the glue that holds all the guys together. And when you put those three, The Three Amigos together, and then you got all our crew guys that work hard. It starts with their two relationships. And they're hard on one another. Sometimes Brian's hard on Mark. It's a true brother relationship. It ain't always cookies and cream and milk. It ain't like that all the time. People think, ‘Oh they're nice.’ Oh no. They'll say some harsh words sometimes. But what I like is that it's real. There's no screaming. It's love. And sometimes it's tough love, and it's great love and sometimes you got to have that honesty to move forward.
“That's why I love these guys with my heart, because all of us are in it together and we want the best for each other.” Tracy Renck
CAPPS NEVER WAVERED IN CHAMPION CONTENTION BELIEF; SUNDAY'S WIN PROVED IT - Ron Capps just keeps turning up the wick in his bid to repeat as NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series Funny Car champion.
Sunday’s Betway NHRA Carolina Nationals at zMAX Dragway near Charlotte marked the third win in the past four events for the rookie team owner. The victory, coming at the expense of Alexis DeJoria, was his 71st in Funny Car competition and 72nd overall (Top Fuel, Seattle, 1995).
Combined with points leader Robert Hight’s second-round exit Sunday, Capps will roll into St. Louis next weekend in second, just 27 points out of the lead after beginning the day 84 in arrears.
Equally as important to Capps on a personal level was a Babe Ruth-like touch to the story. Legend has it that the “Sultan of Swat” called a home run in the 1932 World Series, allegedly to fulfill a promise to a sick child named Johnny Sylvester. Ruth never confirmed that to be true.
Capps didn’t go so far as to promise a win Sunday, but he did produce a sentimental outcome in memory of one of his biggest fans, Balin Hewson. Hewson died unexpectedly Friday night after battling a lifelong illness and confinement to a wheelchair. Hewson’s father, Brad, owns a small NAPA AutoCare garage near Phoenix, and NAPA is Capps’ primary sponsor.
“He was always the first to text me, win or lose. Just a great kid,” said Capps, who described Balin as a fan who “lived and breathed” drag racing and was “the first to text me, win or lose.”
Capps didn’t divulge Hewson’s specific medical issue other than to note that doctors didn’t expect him to live past his teen-age years. Hewson proved their diagnosis to be incorrect – he would have turned 21 this week – and Capps said that doctors had given him a “thumbs up” following an appointment just a week ago.
Then, “he started breathing weird Friday night,” Capps said. “His dad called paramedics – thought (Balin) was just having a panic attack, so it was very sudden. It’s a rollercoaster when you’re told your son or daughter isn’t going to live past their teen years, and then things are looking better – and then it happens. …
“His dad called and said, ‘Go win that for him.’ You’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh. I wish I could. I hope I can,’ and we actually did it. I can’t wait to take this (trophy) there and give it to his mom and dad.”
Capps’ race weekend was chock full of anxious moments. His car’s Toyota Supra body suffered damage due to an engine explosion in Saturday night’s final qualifying session, and his team spent part of the night and more time Sunday morning patching it up for eliminations.
Then, in the second round of eliminations, he watched Hight get taken out by DeJoria, with her 3.918-second pass edging Hight’s 3.924 by a nose.
“I was next up,” Capps said, “I’ve got to run Tasca next, and I think, ‘Oh, my God, this is a huge round.’ ”
Capps made sure there wouldn’t be another Brainerd final-round repeat, when Tasca turned on the win light. He posted his second consecutive 3.88 at a whopping 335 mph, while Tasca’s Mustang smoked the tires almost immediately.
“Hard to even understand,” Tasca said. “Sometimes this sport can tear your heart out. We weren’t even close to blowing the tires off on every single run in qualifying.”
Next up for Capps was 16-time NHRA national champion and No. 1 qualifier John Force. Capps’ tune-up was again spot-on, with a 3.89 at 328 toppling Force’s 3.91, 331.
DeJoria earned her way into the finals for only the second time this season by ending Matt Hagan’s day – just barely. The drivers left the line with nearly identical reaction times, and DeJoria’s 3.887 was enough to cover Hagan’s 3.893 by 2/1,000ths of a second.
The final-round duel was just that. Capps got the edge out of the gate, then held on to the finish line, 3.96 and 267.32 with a dead engine, to DeJoria’s 3.985, 266.85 after she drove through a wisp of tire smoke at mid-track.
“She’d just been driving her rear end off all day, and so I was like, ‘Oh, boy, I don’t want to be victim No. 3.’ I mean, look who she took out today, right? Incredible,” Capps said. …
“We left, and then I didn’t see her car. Mine bowed up and lifted the front end, and I’m sure the G-meter’s a half a G higher than we’ve made. It just started grunting and taking off and I’m like, ‘Oh, hang on to this thing’ – and then it just quit. I’m listening, I didn’t want to hit the button on the parachutes or touch anything. It was like Fred Flintstone, I just wanted to push my feet through the bottom and do anything I can because you don’t know where they’re at, and I couldn’t hear her, so obviously something happened. I was just staying away from everything and I coasted through. My light came on and she went whizzing by me, just coasting. And I went, ‘Oh, man, that’s going to be fun to watch later, whatever happened.’ So, I don’t even know. … What a way to win.”
“Huge” is how Capps described his four wins in eliminations Sunday – “championship Pomona final-round huge.”
He added, “Tasca’s been running so well, and whether or not we pressured them a little bit into smoking the tires, I don’t know. They just haven’t smoked them like that in a long time, so that was big to get by them, and not only that but to run like we did, 335, today.
“John Force is like the Tom Brady of our sport, and it’s like a defensive back looking into the eyes of Tom Brady every time you race that guy. They were huge, and we had an all-Toyota final. That took a little bit of pressure off, but that was a big match-up. Every round today was just that much more we could gain on Robert.”
DeJoria was denied career win No. 7 in her first final round since the four-wide show at Las Vegas on April 3.
Capps’ 2022 maiden voyage as an owner/driver produced a runner-up finish to Hight to kick off the season at Pomona. He then won the four-wide show at Las Vegas, he was third at zMAX in May in the season’s other four-wide contest, and June produced a Wally at Bristol. Since mid-August, Capps was runner-up to Bob Tasca at Brainerd, won the non-points Pep Boys Funny Car All-Star Callout and the U.S. Nationals on back-to-back days, and a week ago took a second-round loss at Maple Grove Raceway in the opening round of the playoffs.
He took advantage of Sunday’s triumphant performance to remind everyone that the Funny Car race is anything but a given for Hight, whose win at Maple Grove Raceway was considered the nail in the coffin by at least one media outlet.
“I thought, ‘How stupid is that? First race of the Countdown,’ ” Capps said. “They’ve dominated, they’ve run well, but there are too many good, talented Funny Car teams. … So I sort of used that. You don’t always get interviewed, so you’ve got to win to make sure you get interviewed. So I thought, ‘Man, I can’t wait,’ so now I can finally say it.”
On the other hand, even after winning for the third time in four races, Capps isn’t really ready to provide the competition any type of similar fodder.
“I don’t get that jacked up,” he said of the momentum his team has established. “It’s great, and I’ve been around the block, and I’ve driven for Don ‘The Snake’ Prudhomme, so you learn. He’s got so many great, good quotes working for him, but one of my favorite of all-time is, ‘Don’t drink your own bath water.’ He said it a few times, and the first time he said it, I went, ‘What the hell does that mean?’
“Too many people come in this sport and they start reading their own press, their own this and that, and just get into yourself and drink your own bath water, right? … I knew at Indy we had a great week, but we’re not going to live off that. We celebrated like a mofo – I mean, all the way through Monday – and then that was it. I said, ‘Enough, we’re done, let’s get ready for (Maple Grove).’ I’ve been around the block a little bit to know. I’ve been around those people – Ed “The Ace” McCulloch and (team owner) Roland (Leong) – and I’ve been smart enough to keep my mouth shut and learn things like that.
“It’s been great – the Indy stuff was great – but (Maple Grove) told you why you don’t (get cocky), and we were humbled. We had a great car, and we had something that happened that was kind of our own fault; otherwise, I think we could’ve gotten to the final round. But that’s drag racing. You start to get cocky and start mouthing off, and that’ll happen to you in a heartbeat. I just want to get back in the fight. It sucks because you have to hope somebody has bad luck, which was Robert. …
“I’ve been there before, leading the points, and I promise you, when you lose, there’s every crew member of every other team happy as hell that you lost and you went out. That’s just the way it is. It’s part of what we do. But long story short, we just knew that every round we could pick up, making hay when the sun’s out, you just try to take advantage of those moments because guess what? I don’t see that happening again. I didn’t see it happening here, but you can’t count on Robert Hight and (his crew chief, Jimmy Prock) to do that, to give you that chance and crack that door open. It’s fun to be right back in it.” Thomas Pope
AARON STANFIELD TAKES PRO STOCK TITLE AT CAROLINA NATIONALS - Aaron Stanfield has had a career-best season in NHRA’s Pro Stock class, but it has not been easy.
Stanfield, however, was on top of his game Sunday as he captured the title at the Betway Carolina Nationals in Charlotte.
Stanfield clocked a 6.567-second lap at 210.21 mph to edge Matt Hartford’s 6.569-second pass at 209.82 mph in the final round at zMax Dragway.
This was Stanfield’s seventh career Pro Stock win and third this season. He also had victories in Phoenix and Bristol, Tenn.
“Leading up to this race (we had) a little bit of adversity on our team,” Stanfield said. “The past couple of races, I (have been) struggling as a driver. Really, I've struggled pretty much all year long. This is definitely the best I've driven. All through qualifying, our hot rod was nice and consistent. It probably was the most consistent driving I've done all year long, through qualifying and through eliminations, and it worked well.
“I did well this race, but I mean, it's hard. It's a hard game. It's all about perfection. It's constantly changing from when you go to somewhere here, where the weather's good, versus Denver. The clutch pedal feels totally different. So, it's a constant... You know, you try not to self-adjust, but it is somewhat of a self-adjustment a lot of places you go, to me anyways. This year I've struggled a little bit with it.”
Stanfield, who is a star Sportsman racer and Factory Stock Showdown driver, moved up from fifth to second in the points standings just 64 points behind his Elite Motorsports teammate Erica Enders.
“I think we're not going to give up,” Stanfield said. “I mean, we still have a shot, but like I said, there's no better feeling in the world than winning an NHRA race. So, I just want to keep trying to go to each race (with that same goal).”
On Sunday, Stanfield knocked off Deric Kramer, Greg Anderson, Troy Coughlin Jr., and then Hartford.
When Enders was upset in the semifinals by Hartford it opened the door for Stanfield to gain ground in the points standings but that wasn’t at the forefront of his mind.
“Either way I was going to have a really tough opponent, but to answer your question, I'm just more worried about winning races and going rounds and being consistent as a driver,” Stanfield said. “I've been in racing for a little bit and every time I seem to start focusing on the points, it starts... I start to think about it. So, I just want to continue to do good and produce consistent results and win races.”
As good as Enders has been this season – seven wins and four No. 1 qualifiers – Stanfield hasn’t let her resume intimidate him.
“Well, I guess in my DNA, I want to be the best,” Stanfield said. “So she is, in my opinion, the best right now. And she's proving it time and time again. So of course, if I pull up beside her, I want to beat her. But outside of that, I mean, we're a team at Elite Motorsports and I support her, and she supports me. It's good to have that competition when you put the helmet on. But we're both pushing each other, I would say.”
Stanfield and Hartford met in the finals for the second time in 2022 as Hartford got the best of him at the Mile-High Nationals in Denver in July but Stanfield wasn’t thinking about that result.
“I can't say that the past results would change how I would approach it, but definitely how you race certain people might change exactly what you're doing,” he said. “But I think we just kind of stayed in our own lane here and did our job.”
Hartford’s crew chief – Eddie Guarnaccia – has ties to Stanfield as he was Greg Stanfield, Aaron’s dad’s crew chief in Pro Stock.
“Matt Hartford, Eddie, we've all been friends for a long time,” Aaron said. “Obviously with my dad for a long, long time. Eddie and my dad have got a lot of history together and had a lot of success together. So, to get to race against him is really cool and hats off to them. They ran really well this weekend and they've had my number the past couple of times. So, it's good to get the win (Sunday).” Tracy Renck
INVINCIBILITY IS OVERRATED - On September 23, 2015, Lyle Barnett was 10 feet tall and bulletproof. At least, he thought so.
The next day he found out different.
Today, the three-time NHRA Pro Modified national event winner is fine not being ten feet tall and bulletproof. It took a horrific accident to teach him a lesson.
Barnett was involved in one of the worst fires ever experienced in a doorslammer and survived.
"The odds were definitely stacked against me," Barnett said in a forthcoming documentary to be aired at CompetitionPlusTV. "It's not something that 40-year-old Lyle probably would've survived. Fortunately, I was 24 years old and in pretty good health."
Barnett, who in 2015 was a Drag Radial racer competing in the Radial vs. The World division at the No Mercy 6 event hosted by South Georgia Motorsports Park when a fuel injection failure engulfed his C-5 Corvette.
The intensity of the fire subjected Barnett to 28 seconds of direct exposure to the flames resulting in third-degree burns to 15 percent of his body.
"I burned for 28 seconds, and that doesn't seem like a long time, but I was on fire all 28 of those seconds," Barnett explained. "And there was a time, probably 20 seconds into that, that I knew for a fact I was dead. I'd accepted the fact that I was going to die in a race car. And it was just a matter of how long it would take for me to die."
While his car burned, Barnett sought a way to escape the inferno. He opened the door, fell out of the car onto the asphalt, and didn't even know if the car was still rolling. Luckily for him, it was already stopped.
"Laying on the track, it didn't really look like it was that bad, according to others," Barnett said. "About four hours later, I was fighting for my life in a life flight from Valdosta, Georgia, to Augusta."
Barnett's life was touch and go for a while.
"There was a time there where I wasn't going to make it," Barnett said. "There was a time there that I had a chance. There was a time there that I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life on vent. And then there was a time when they realized that miracles had happened in that hospital. And I went from near death to fully functioning and healthy lungs."
His lung restoration was nothing short of a miracle. There are 40 divisions in the human lung, and 38 of Barnett's were damaged.
"The next two months of my life are a blur for the most part," Barnett said. "I endured over 20 surgeries over the course of my stay there. Most of them, obviously, being grafting surgeries."
The only thing Barnett realized just as quickly as how painful his injuries were, was how supportive the drag racing community was around him.
"The support system that existed from the drag racing community never wavered," Barnett said. "The prayers came in by the minute."
Barnett credits the unending attention to detail of the doctors and medical staff at the JMS Burn Center in Augusta, Ga., for his rapid recovery.
"I consider them angelic," Barnett said. "I tell them all the time that they are 100% the reason that medically I am here today. And the good Lord above had a huge hand in that as well."
"I'm blessed just to be sitting here, honestly. The rest of this story has kind of written itself, and it's been a hell of a ride so far."
LIVING LIFE AGGRESSIVELY — In his quest for a fifth consecutive NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series Top Fuel title, Steve Torrence finds himself in unfamiliar territory.
Entering the Betway NHRA Carolina Nationals at zMAX Dragway near Charlotte, Torrence is fifth in the Countdown to the Championship standings – but only 56 points behind leader Justin Ashley entering Sunday’s eliminations.
This week, though, motorsports wasn’t the only thing on the mind of the Kilgore, Texas, racer. This week marked the 22nd anniversary of Torrence’s diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and recovery has given him the opportunity to cherish every facet of his life. That outlook was enhanced in April 2021 when Torrence, now 39, and wife Natalie welcomed daughter Haven into the world.
“You don’t really know exactly who you are when you’re 17, so … I can’t say it changed me, but I can say it made me the person I am today because of it, going through that,” Torrence said Friday. “I’ve been through other illnesses in my life that’re the result of the chemo and radiation treatments I’ve had. Maybe in a good way, maybe in a bad way, it’s made me live life aggressively. You’re never guaranteed tomorrow. You’re never guaranteed the next heartbeat, and we’re all just one heartbeat away from that.
“So to a fault, I find myself filling every waking moment of my life with something. And sometimes I don’t take the time to enjoy things as much as I should and just smell the roses because I’ve lived with a sense of urgency because life is so short and fleeting. On the counter side of that, I’ve got my little girl now, and it’s made me kind of change that thought a little bit – start enjoying things more and trying to slow down because it’s going by so fast, and if I miss any part of that with her, you miss it. I feel as if my life has kind of come full circle in the way that I look at things and approach things because it’s ever so quickly changing.”
Chemotherapy was the first course of treatment that doctors at Baylor University Medical Center prescribed for Torrence. It was more than the 17-year-old’s system could tolerate, and he said both lungs collapsed twice due to chemo. At one point, Torrence said, he had a pair of chest tubes in his left lung to reinflate it and six more in his right lung for the same reason.
Doctors quickly pivoted to radiation, and while those seven weeks of those treatments were successful, they caused lingering issues.
“Radiation today, I know some folks that have gone through it, and it’s so much different than what I did,” he said. “Back then, it was like getting shot with a fire hose, and now it’s like getting shot with laser precision,” adding that radiation was akin to “getting microwaved.”
Whether overcoming his medical issues has helped in dealing with racing adversity, Torrence can’t say, nor could he pinpoint whether they helped fuel his competitive nature that sparked championships from 2018-21.
“You approach things with so much intensity and drive, and you work so hard and so diligently to get to a point,” he said. “I kind of made a butthole of myself on TV a few years ago” – the hand to the face of Cameron Ferre on the top end at the 2019 season finale – “because you get to something and you think, ‘I’ll never have that opportunity again. What if that was my one shot, my one chance, and we let it slip?’ and you don’t handle it like you normally would because you’re emotionally in it.
“One thing we’ve not done is put so much emphasis on it. You’ve just got to go perform, and do what you’ve trained and acclimated yourself to do. When you’re able to do that, that only comes with time and experience.”
In 2018’s inaugural championship season, Torrence swept all six Countdown playoff races. Last year, he won 11 of the 20 national events en route to gold. This year, he’s registered only one victory in four final-round showings.
If you think he’s worried about playing catch-up after the 2022 Countdown opener – a second-round loss to eventual winner Austin Prock at Maple Grove Raceway last weekend – think again.
“Honestly, I think this position is easier,” Torrence said. “When you’re winning and you’re consistently winning, everybody wants to pick you off – everybody wants to be the guy that beats you – and we haven’t been the top runner, we haven’t been the No. 1 car all year. That’s been Brittany (Force), and there’s been more emphasis on beating her. At this point in my career, I’ve been through just about every situation you can go through – lead the championship all year and lose it the last race; win all six Countdowns – but we’ve never come from behind to do it.
“We have less expectation. People think, ‘Well, Torrence is out of it, they’re not going to win the championship.’ Well, OK, concentrate on somebody else, and it makes our job easier because we just go do what it does.”
At the root of Torrence’s performance shortfalls – relatively speaking, of course – is a refusal to stand pat with last year’s tune-ups. Instead, he and crew chief Bobby Lagana have been gung-ho in probing new areas for speed, traction and horsepower.
“A lot of the struggles and things that we’ve been through this year have been 100% self-inflicted, and we knew that going into (the Countdown),” Torrence said. “We tried some stuff all year. So going through that definitely has made us just stay more focused and nose to the grindstone and work on what we’re trying to do. Because at the end of the day, you can lead all of the (regular-season) races and win every one of them, but you’ve only got to win the last six.”
SHOE HERE TO STAY – One of the few racers in NHRA Top Fuel history with more titles than Torrence is Tony Schumacher, who dominated the sport with six consecutive championships between 2004-09 and eight to date (1999, 2014).
When he lost the sponsorship of the U.S. Army after 19 seasons, he also lost his ability to compete, and was sidelined for the better part of the past three years before making a return this year. After a Saturday announcement at zMAX, Schumacher is positioned to once again become a major thorn in the competition’s side.
Scag Power Equipment, a division of Wisconsin’s Metalcraft of Mayville, has sponsored Schumacher in most of the NHRA races this year. Scag President and Chief Executive Officer Randy Gloede joined Schumacher and team owner Joe Maynard to announce they will be together through the 2025 campaign.
“I’m surprised more businesses don’t do it,” Gloede said of marketing a business through NHRA drag racing.
“I’m fired up,” Schumacher said. “We’re getting everything in order to come at it hard next year. We’ve got the budget to go after it with the parts and pieces. This year we weren’t exactly sure how all the parts and pieces would work, so now we’ve got representation, we’ve got funding and we’re going to try to go out next year and kick some butt.
“For NHRA, this is a big deal. Like Randy said, ‘Why aren’t other people doing this? We came out and looked at it, and it’s insanely good.’ This is a great sport. We want to see other sponsors come out, we want to have bigger fields.”
Joe and Cathi Maynard, both of whom are military veterans, are business owners from Clarksville, Tenn., and are major contributors to the athletics program at Austin Peay State University in their hometown; their names adorn the baseball and softball stadiums on campus as part of a $15 million pledge. They joined Don Schumacher Racing as associate partners in March 2021, stepped up their stake earlier this year to become primary partners with DSR, and became majority owners of the team about two months ago.
“Our future that Randy and I have talked about is going to be a long and productive one,” Joe Maynard said. “I can tell you safely that Maynard Family Racing will be out here, we think, indefinitely. We’ve put the wheels in motion. … We are going to win some races because we have the greatest driver of all-time.”
JUST HAD TO GO THERE - Pro Stock low qualifier Erica Enders knew it was coming, and when it did, the multi-time Pro Stock champion and future Hall of Famer grimaced a bit.
"Do you think you can run the table like Steve Torrence and win all of the Countdown races?
"I mean, being funny, I feel like we have the potential to win out," Enders said. "That's obviously our goal, but there's 15 other guys that would like to think otherwise, and they're going to be gunning for you, so that is a very, very tall order.
"Is it possible? Absolutely with the team that I have, but you just got to take it one round, one at a time, and not get ahead of yourself. I don't need to be focusing on where we're going next and what we need to accomplish, and how many points I'm ahead. Tomorrow I got Larry Morgan. Focus on that one. If and when I beat him, I'll focus on the next one. So that's kind of how we take it."
Enders did get off to a tremedous start in 2022, winning six events and adding a seventh for good measure. She also had two close ones "that got away."
"Those two finals that we lost were just by a very, very small margin, so it's kind of interesting that you get down, you're like, "Man, I lost this races," where you really didn't. It just fell another way.
"So you kind of dig yourself out of that and come back swinging. So it's an interesting mindset, but you got to make it all as positive as you can."
It wasn't always easy for Enders, particularly in the early going.
She learned from two of the best, Bob Glidden and Jeggie Coughlin, who willingly took the upstart driver under their wing. Then she sat back many times and took mental notes of the other drivers.
"I spent a lot of time with my butt on that guard wall watching how everybody did burnouts, how everybody staged, learning their procedures, learning what they liked, what they didn't like, so I feel like I was a real student of the game," Enders explained. "When I wasn't winning, I wasn't sitting back in my pit having a cocktail. I was watching and trying to learn and trying to get better, so it's definitely been a long road, and I feel like we still have a long way to go, but I love what I do. I take a lot of pride in my driving and how my team works together, so I think we're on the right track right now."
I JUST WANT TO SEE - You can’t blame the kid; he was just curious.
Sitting in the back of the line, as Top Fuel racer after racer upped their game, the third-year professional drag racer Justin Ashley just wanted to know what he was up against when it came his time to run.
“I usually try and stay within myself but that session I was peeking at the SunocoVision trying to see what the teams in front of us ran,” Ashley said. “I could tell they ran in the 3.60s and those are some good teams.
"I knew Mike Green and Tommy DeLago would try and go up there to do the same. I figured Mike and Tommy were going to try and run a little quicker. You can try as much as you want but going out there and doing it successfully really speaks volumes about our team.”
Ashley secured his second career No. 1 qualifying effort with a 3.668 second run at 335.65 mph pass on Saturday evening as the sun set on zMax Dragway. It's the place where he made his professional debut three years ago.
“Far and away this is the most beautiful facility on tour,” said Ashley, who raced to a runner-up finish last weekend at the first Countdown event. “I think as soon as you pull in you realize how gorgeous this place is and how clean it is. We have had a lot of success during qualifying here at the first two races in Charlotte this season. We are going to enjoy this one tonight and then put it behind us to focus on the race tomorrow.”
Ashley racked up the bonus points throughout qualifying, adding to his points lead. He made the third quickest run Friday to earn one qualifying bonus point and his team picked up another three points with the quickest run of the third session. The ability to grab the little points has the four-time Top Fuel national event winner excited for his championship aspirations.
“Consistency is critical especially during the Countdown,” said Ashley, who has raced to at least the semifinals in six of the previous seven national events. “If you want to win races you obviously have to go A to B, but you also want to be able to collect those bonus points. All those points add up quickly. We are going down the track every run trying to stay within ourselves. We are not trying to shock the world. It is important to be consistent and to qualify well to put yourself in the best position to win the race on Sunday. The way the Top Fuel field is now no matter where you qualify it is going to be a difficult first round.”
Ashley will face No. 16 qualifier Alex Laughlin who has a 3-1 career head-to-head record against him in the first round.
HE REALLY IS 17X, AND A SOON-TO-BE HALL OF FAMER - One of the forgotten achievements for the man of a gazillion accomplishments, is John Force's 1985 American Drag Racing Association (former AHRA) series championship. Force's most recent accolade of 165 No. 1 qualifying efforts was secured on Saturday night on the strength of Friday's result at the Carolina Nationals.
Force has over 800 starts and over 1,000 round wins as well. He's not about reading his own press releases or drinking his own bath water, both of which he believes could have dire consequences.
"Does it all matter?" Force asked. "Yeah, I'm not trying to BS you. It does matter to me. It really does to think I did something. And the coolest thing was Garlits personally called me to tell me I was going to the Hall of Fame. He said, 'Shut up, you're going."
"He said, 'You're going in." Because he loves me, and I think he's just great. And bottom line, but if I want to run around believing all that stuff and running all these numbers, I'll be sitting in the staging lanes saying, 'How many wins do I got?"
"And then I'll forget to leave the starting line. You know what I'm saying?
"What I'm going to do is just keep doing it the way I did it growing up. I'm going to keep chasing it, keep throwing them stories out there. Every time a fan grabs me, I turn around, I'm going to say something, but I don't. Big old hug. You know what I'm saying? That's the way I live."
KABLOOOIE - Ron Capps qualified 4th in the Funny Car field with a 3.866, but a boo-boo in the Q-3 session created a fair amount of work for the team Saturday night.
REMEMBERING JOHNNY D - Drag Racing Association of Women, is $5,000 richer, thanks to David Napp’s donation to the charitable organization Saturday at the Betway NHRA Carolina Nationals at Concord, N.C.
DiBartolomeo – photojournalist/editor, racer with handful of victories dating back to the early 1990s, manufacturer, parts distributor, innovator, and liaison between drivers and the sanctioning body – passed away May 23 at age 68 following a battle with cancer.
Napp, co-owner of Old Bridge Township Raceway Park at Englishtown, N.J., presented the gift on behlf of the Napp family to DiBartolomeo’s family. Accepting were Di Bartolomeo’s widow Dottie; son Franklin, his wife Jennifer, and their son, Evan; and daughter Christina.
DiBartolomeo, a Beaver Springs, Pa., resident, was inducted into the East Coast Hall of Fame in 2010 and the NHRA Division 1 Hall of Fame in 2016 for his contributions to the sport of drag racing.
His most recent victories came in back-to-back triumphs in 2018 and 2019, at Norwalk, Ohio. At the now-defunct Englishtown dragstrip he considered his “home track,” he won in 2009. Son Franklin DiBartolomeo had won that event two years before, and Dad said, “It marked only a small number of times when a father and son had national-event victories to their credit.”
John DiBartolomeo had Wally trophies also from victories at Gainesville, Fla.; Indianapolis; and Reading, Pa.
Napp said this gesture at zMAX Dragway was meaningful to him because “this is the 30th anniversary of the Jr. Drag Racing League. Drag racing, it's not about trophies. It's about family, in my opinion. I want to thank the family and staff at Raceway Park in Englishtown that made this possible. The main thing we're trying to do is spread happiness and try to take bad situations and make them good.
“John was a journalist, a racer, and someone that promoted the sport in a way that reminded me of my own father [Vinny Napp, who will be inducted in the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame this next March at Gainesville, Fla.]. He was a jack of all trades. He created the Junior Drag Racing League. He had a family. He had a racetrack. That kind of ability needs to be celebrated. That's why we're celebrating John DiBartolomeo’s memory today,” Napp said.
“DRAW is an outreach program that helps drag racers in need. We need more of that. We need people to reach out and extend a hand if it's financial or if it’s a pat on the back. That kind of generosity, we need more of that,” he said. “Drag racing is my family. It always has been. I think drag racing . . . it has given me so much, and it just felt right to give back.
“I just want to say to NHRA and to all the fans here, NHRA is a family. It's, again, not about the trophies. It's about the connection. And it's a beautiful sport, and I'm so happy to be here,” Napp said.
“And it's truly my honor to celebrate the memory of someone that has done so much for our sport and just a true gentleman,” he said. “We miss you, John. We love you, John, and we're not going to forget you. You are in our hearts forever."
D.R.A.W. provides financial and emotional support to individuals injured in drag-racing accidents. – Susan Wade
REMEMBER WHEN? – Hey, weren’t you Terry Adams?
Yep. He still is, and the former IHRA Pro Stock racer still enjoys a turn behind the wheel with a 500-inch nostalgia Pro Stock car previously fielded by Frank Iaconio.
When the Millers Creek, N.C., resident isn’t turning back the clock with that high-speed toy, he’s helping tune the Mountain Motor Pro Stock entry of Ohio’s Dwayne Rice, a zMAX entrant this weekend. Adams helped Larry Kopp win the 1998 NHRA Pro Stock Truck championship, spent time with Rickie Smith and Warren Johnson, and won an NHRA Pro Stock crown with Mike Edwards in 2009.
Adams’ association with Rice will allow him to take part in more than a dozen NHRA and PDRA contests this year while still leaving plenty of time for his own thrills behind the wheel.
“I ran (Iaconio’s former car) here this time of year last year,” the 67-year-old Adams said. “They told me not to run quicker than 7.50. Well, I haven’t run the quarter-mile in a long time, so went barreling down through there, put the chute out about the 1,000-foot mark, and it ran 7-flat – probably as fast that ol’ car’s ever been.”
Rice tested at Darlington (S.C.) prior to arriving at zMAX, and will return there next week prior to the PDRA’s show at GALOT Motorsports Park in Benson, N.C.
REVISITING THE SCENE – You’d probably be hard-pressed to find a racer more eager to compete at zMAX this weekend than Stan Shelton, whose home in Albemarle, N.C., is less than an hour from the track.
At the NHRA Four-Wide Carolina Nationals at zMAX four-plus months ago, Shelton experienced the best and worst moments of his brief Pro Modified career. Shelton, whose previous background was in truck and tractor pulling, qualified No. 8 in the field and advanced to the final four. That was the best part.
The worst came when he attempted to stage his car alongside those of Rickie Smith, Kris Thorne and Lyle Barnett. Shelton and Smith, assigned the second and third lanes of the four-lane layout, each made the mistake of focusing on each other’s lights and crossed the starting line before the tree activated. Thorne, meanwhile, stormed to an easy victory over Barnett.
“It’s great to be this close to home, that’s for sure. Your family and friends come here and fellowship. Our car is our excuse to drive ourselves together as a family,” Shelton said “We enjoyed the Four-Wide when we were here last time, then it kinda turned into a dumpster fire in the final round – a little brain fart by me and Rickie.
“I was looking at Rickie’s bulb, and Rickie was looking at my bulb. They had a class for that on Thursday before the race started Friday and told us about all the situations. The guys in lanes 1 and 4 can’t mess up because their bulbs are on the outside. The guys in lanes 2-3, when you’re sitting in 3 like I was, your brain’s telling you your bulb is on your side of the track, but really it’s on the other side of the track.
“My crew put four little circles up on my dash and highlighted which one I was, and it worked flawlessly in qualifying and flawlessly through eliminations. Then we got up there in the finals, got too caught up in it. My emotions got the best of me, and I screwed up. We were just happy we went rounds. We’re in the entertainment business, you had a screw car, a nitrous car, a blown car, and a turbo car – the perfect storm in the finals. It should’ve been fantastic, and it turned into the worst round of the weekend. We’ll put that behind us until the 4-Wide comes back around again.”
THE CHAOS STILL ROLLS - There's multitasking, and then there's what Kyle Koretsky did last weekend at the first national event his family staged with Maple Grove.
"I was selling chicken fingers and Pro Stock at the burnout box," said Koretsky, who drives the Lucas Oil Pro Stock Camaro. "I'm like, oh crap. I guess I better get back to the trailer, but it was definitely not as calm as it is this weekend."
While his dad, Kenny Koretsky, was admittedly beaten down and tired in the days following the Pep Boys NHRA Nationals, Koretsky said he was ready for me.
"You'll sleep when you're dead," Koretsky said. "We were back at it 7:00 AM Monday morning, and then out here on Thursday, but he was roughed up. He was out there picking up trash and selling parking spots, and he did his part."
It's no secret the Koretsky Family has numerous business interests, but it might be Maple Grove that has stolen the kid's heart.
"Me personally, yeah," Koretsky said. "I think the rest of the family doesn't, but me personally, it's what I want to do. It's my passion. And it's not really work. I kind of just go do what I love to do and makes it real easy."
BROKEN ROD SHORT-CIRCUITS CHAMP’S RETURN – Kevin Rivenbark was a surprise entrant in Pro Modified here – surprising because you can count on three fingers the number of times the three-time PDRA Pro Boost champion has been behind the wheel in 2022. His most-recent gig was at Firebird Raceway in Boise, Idaho, where he put the first laps on a new No Prep ’69 Nova owned by Tim Wallace.
But Rivenbark had to withdraw from action at zMAX after breaking a connecting rod during testing at Darlington, S.C., on Wednesday evening. The car was built for Jose Gonzalez, the 2021 NHRA Pro Mod titlist, but he decided to sell it to Alabama’s Scott Tidwell.
“We had great runs – great runs – the first three passes” at Darlington, Rivenbark said. “We wanted to do a night run about 6:30, and they serviced the car and put new rods in it – and one of them broke. We looked and looked all night for an engine, and it just didn’t work out.”
Rivenbark won his first two PDRA crowns in 2016 and 2019, and he added a third last fall despite a crash in testing. Fellow competitor Stan Shelton loaned his car to Rivenbark for the final two contests, and Rivenbark ran well enough to edge GALOT Motorsports teammate Daniel Pharris by a scant eight points for the gold.
Pharris is again leasing a GALOT car this year, with his primary focus being the Mid-West Drag Racing Series. Nearly a year later, repairs on the Camaro that Rivenbark crashed aren’t complete.
Rivenbark found a silver lining while being sidelined from racing most of the year. He opened a business (PowerSolutions, an authorized dealer for Kohler and Generac residential generators) in his hometown of Wallace, N.C., so the timing for a break from racing was fortuitous.
Rivenbark tentatively expects to be back in action Dec. 1-4 at the Snowbird Nationals in Bradenton, Fla., in either Shelton’s or Tidwell’s car. He’s hopeful he’ll drive Tidwell’s car in NHRA competition next year.
GOOD 'OL 13 - Home is where your luck is, and for Pro Stock racer Bo Butner, he's found an affection for the No. 13. He's also found success.
Butner lost his Friday run when sun glare coming off the tree caused him to time out but returned the next day to make a solid A to B pass to ensure a place in the field. The 6.568-second run at 210.44 mph got Butner on the board as the No. 12 man, and in the last qualifying round, a 6.528 was an improved number, but he dropped down one position.
"I've won two or three times in Super Stock races where I qualified No. 13," said the 2017 Pro Stock world champion. "You always remember that number. The competition is so tight, anyone can win – but I feel good starting there. I'm excited."
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK - THE FEAR FACTOR FOR ASHLEY, IT WASN’T ALWAYS AT THE TOP FOR HAGAN, WARE HAS A NEW HOME
A MOMENT IN TIME - Sometimes what they don't know can be the biggest fear a drag racer can face. Three years ago, point leader Justin Ashley knew just enough about a Top Fuel dragster to make him dangerous, but not in the sense of his capabilities. He was a dangerous talent to the competition.
As he sat in the burnout box moments before making his first run behind the wheel of a 12,000-horsepower dragster AT THE 2019 NHRA Carolina Nationals, Ashley had a moment of fear he had never shared with anyone until today.
"I really hadn't made a full pull until my first lap in Charlotte at the event," Ashley admitted. "I think what worried me was the unknown. I didn't know what I didn't know at that point. Racing in front of a big crowd on a professional level was new to me. Understanding what it took to be a professional race car driver was new to me. So just an overall understanding of what was going on is really what worried me."
And just like he's done so many times in his career, Ashley never let them see him sweat.
"At that point, we had tested and came out to Charlotte," Ashley said. "I think we thought we would have been a little further along at that point, but we weren't."
Ashley made up for the lost testing time by driving his way to the semi-finals, losing to eventual series champion Steve Torrence.
Ashley would score nine final rounds in 50 starts, with four rounds in the two years following, including a Rookie of the Year award. A genuine fear on the first day of his Top Fuel career was the fear of failure.
"You're always taught not to have fear of failure," Ashley said. "It's never the right way to think, but especially in the beginning when you're first driving, it's a fear you don't want to let anyone down. I didn't want to let anyone down. We had sponsors that put their trust in us, that we were going to go out there and run well and do something special. And I had spent my whole life working to get to that point.
"Naturally, having not actually done it before, yes, the fear of failure came into play like, 'Hey, I better be able to do this because I've worked my whole life to get to this point, now I better capitalize."
Ashley was raised on the mantra of expect to win. Even he was caught off guard by the semi-final finish in the debut.
"I'd be lying to you if I wouldn't say that I was a bit taken back," Ashley said. "A bit humbled by that because, of course, that's the goal where I did expect to be there. But then to know that that would actually happen is a whole other story."
Given a chance to go back in time, knowing the experience he's gained today to talk to the rookie version of himself, Ashley does have sage advice he'd readily pass on.
"Don't get too caught up in the moment," Ashley said. "There's a lot going on, on and off the racetrack, and it's very easy to get caught up in what's going on and not appreciate the present, not actually appreciate the moment and appreciate the fact that, you know what? I have the ability to live a dream that millions of people would love to do.
"I would definitely tell that Justin Ashley to enjoy it, don't get too caught up in the moment, and make sure you race every race with everything you have and nothing to lose."
A HOUSE OF FORCE - Looking to sweep both races at zMAX Dragway this season, legendary Funny Car driver John Force rolled to the provisional No. 1 position Friday in Charlotte at the 14th annual Betway NHRA Carolina Nationals.
Force, who has won the four-wide race at the track the past two years, just missed the track record at the second race in the playoffs, going 3.854-seconds at 330.47 mph in his 11,000-horsepower PEAK Chevrolet Camaro SS. If it holds it would be the 16-time world champion’s second No. 1 qualifier this year and 165th in his career. Force has forged an impressive rhythm at the state-of-the-art facility in recent years and is trying to make a move in the points standings as well. He’s currently fourth in points and is looking to make a big push this weekend.
“It’s a great track to run numbers like this, but there’s a stack of them right behind me that can do the same, and we’re going to have conditions like this tomorrow,” Force said. “We’ve got a good team and it’s coming around, (but) we’ve got a lot of work to do. They will all be here tomorrow, but at least we got to shine for one night. Our team had a great weekend last weekend with Robert (Hight) and Austin (Prock) both winning, and we’re back in the fight in the Countdown.”
AIR DOUG IS FLYING AGAIN - Looking to get into the Top Fuel championship hunt with a late-season run – and also pick up a milestone victory along the way – Doug Kalitta was the only driver to dip into the 3.60s on Friday, rocketing to the top with his run of 3.694 at 326.56 in his 11,000-horsepower Mac Tools dragster. Kalitta is seeking his second No. 1 qualifier this season, but also his 50th career win – and first victory since 2020 – as he looks to ramp up his 2022 performance. The veteran hasn’t been to a final round yet this year, but timing is everything in the Countdown to the Championship and Kalitta looked strong on Friday under the lights at zMAX Dragway.
“I always love coming here and the conditions were perfect,” Kalitta said. “We had a lot of confidence in that run, and I was really happy it ran what it did. We’re getting down to the wire and we’re trying to go rounds. It was a great effort by the team and the car stayed in the groove well. It was pretty impressive with all the side-by-side runs and we’re looking forward to getting after it tomorrow. All year long, we’ve tried to keep improving and I think we’ve stumbled upon some things. This would be an awesome time to start going rounds and have a consistent car.”
SUN'S OUT; FUN'S OUT - A sun shining on a drag strip is much better than the alternative or precipitation. That is the case until the glowing red circle in the sky keeps you from seeing the staging bulb, much less the tree.
Mr. Sunshine wasn't kind to the Pro Stockers during Friday's lone qualifying session at sundown (6 PM, EST) during the first day of the NHRA Carolina Nationals.
Bo Butner and point leader Erica Enders were two of those having a hard time blocking out the glare on the pre-stage bulbs.
Butner lost his first run when he couldn't see to stage and was timed out.
"It just puts us behind a little bit," said Butner. "I'm not saying we can't run really good tomorrow, but you have to go A to B and get qualified. That's what we'll have to start with, and then hopefully, the second run, we can improve."
"In 30 years, I've never been in the position of not knowing if the other driver is staging or not. I'll mess up a lot, but I don't usually mess up staging. I thought something was wrong."
After watching Butner's predicament called on her crew for help, Enders was a bit resourceful in her approach.
"The glare on the tree was something I've never seen in the 18 years that I've been driving Pro Stock," Enders said. "I could see Greg's top bulb, his pre-stage bulb, so I turned my pre-stage ball on and set my brake pressure, and I'm looking. I'm looking, and all I see is glare, so I reached over and radioed with my guys, and I'm like, 'Tell me when he's in."
"And so my little redneck, Timmy, he's like, 'All right, he's in; so I started getting tickled in the car, my cheeks were up in my face and anyway, threw it in, and we made the run."
THAT GIRL IS ON FIRE - Enders delivered an impressive boom to open Pro Stock qualifying on Friday in Charlotte, rolling to No. 1 by a considerable margin with her 6.513 at 210.93 in her Melling Performance/Elite Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro. The next closest to her was defending world champ Greg Anderson, who went 6.535 at 209.82, but Enders remained a step ahead as she closes in on her fourth No. 1 position this season and 27th in her career.
After a dominant performance last weekend in Reading to open the Countdown to the Championship, Enders, the points leader and four-time world champ, kept up her impressive pace to open up the race weekend at zMAX Dragway.
“This is a dream come true for me,” Enders said. “The drive for five (world championships) is still alive and we’re going to try to continue to execute the best we can. It definitely felt good when I let the clutch out. All these (qualifying) points matter in the Countdown and our goal is to accumulate as many as we can. We did that in Reading and we're going to try to keep our foot on their throats. We're off to a good start (in the Countdown), but we have five races left and we want to capitalize on every moment. We have to make these five races count and see what happens."
BEFORE THE SHIP CAME IN - Long before he became as muscular as an NFL Linebacker and as talented as a nitro-burning Funny Car driver, Matt Hagan was as green as a race car driver could be and began his march to stardom behind the wheel of full-bodied race cars.
A little over two decades ago, Hagan was finding his way into drag racing's upper echelon as a Pro Modified driver. The road to stardom wasn't exactly an easy one for the driver of Tony Stewart's Funny Car.
When Hagan started drag racing, the idea of racing a fuel Funny Car was about as far from his thought processes as it got.
"I had a Chevy II/Nova that I foot-braked for a while, and then I had an old Firebird that had a 632 Eagle [Mike Hedgecock] motor in it with two stages of nitrous, and that's really kind of where I got into it all," Hagan recalled.
Well, not really. Hagan was 13 years old when he got the itch for competing on the straight line with a four-wheeler he bracket raced at the strip close to his Christianburg, Va.-home.
"Beginner's luck or whatever, I won 130 bucks; went to the final," Hagan said with a smile. "I didn't win the event, but I was just hooked after that."
Hagan's father, David, was about as proud of his kid as a dad could be.
"He thought it was cool as could be my doing that," Hagan added.
The cool factor wore off when Hagan started "borrowing" cars from David's Shelor Motor Mile dealerships to fill his need for speed. Hagan is running a Shelor Motor Mile-sponsored Funny Car at this weekend's NHRA Carolina Nationals.
"Then I started stealing cars off the car lot and bringing them back with the transmissions out of them and tires burned off of them, and this is stuff that he had to resell," Hagan admitted. "So he's like, 'We got to find a different way of doing this."
David found a capable alternative with a nitrous-injected Corvette. But before he would allow his son to take a spin in the Pro Modified machine, he had to undergo a bit of training. After all, this doorslammer was much more than the cars he took from the dealership.
A family friend had a fast '69 Dart, a 4-speed car, that wheelstood and did all kinds of crazy stuff like the Corvette was capable of doing. He took the first run in the Corvette to shake it down before the anxious kid climbed behind the wheel.
"He went out there; it ran really good. I forget what it ran, but it ran good for that little eighth-mile track that we were at," Hagan recalled.
The mentor didn't tell Hagan that he'd unhooked one of the carburetors under the guise of fine-tuning the machine. He wanted to keep the kid reeled in.
Hagan made his first run and returned with what he felt was important feedback.
"This thing is running like a turd," Hagan said as the makeshift crew rolled with laughter. Everyone knew about the carburetor but Hagan.
"They said, 'Well, maybe you're just not pushing the gas hard enough."
"So I come back, and I had pushed the gas pedal through the floorboard. I broke it off, and they said, 'Oh no, no, we unhooked one of the carburetors just so it wasn't too much for your first run or two."
They hooked the carburetor up, and the kid, in the first pass, ran just as quick as the instructor proving he could drive.
It didn't take long before Hagan was racing at every eighth-mile backwood track he could find and keeping it between the guardrails. Yes, some of those tracks still had Armco guardrails.
"I started running these outlaw tracks as pretty much quick as safe to show up, get to race, and just one of those things where I started doing that, and it didn't really matter how fast your car was," Hagan explained. "You just had to get down these rough racetracks, and so started doing some of that and started winning.
"You'd sometimes win $10,000 to $12,000 in cash on the weekend on Saturday, and it's like, 'Wow, I can do this."
"I remember one time in Kinston Dragway, we shut down in a cornfield. You'd hit the brakes on the asphalt as hard as you could and get the parachutes out, and then you'd slide into a cornfield to finish shutting down. So just tracks that you probably had no business being with some of these race cars that we had."
Those days were just a training mission for what would lie ahead.
Hagan, who was once a Rookie of the Year in the former NHRA AMS Pro Modified Series, was given the opportunity to go into the Nitro Funny Car ranks.
Then IHRA sponsor Evan Knoll was helping the series to field a nitro Funny Car class but was short on teams, so he asked Hagan if he'd be interested in running one of the floppers.
"So next thing you know, I'm trying to get a license to drive the IHRA deal," Hagan said.
Hagan admits he had no idea it would turn into what it is today.
Hagan eventually got on Don Schumacher's radar as the team started to run some NHRA events with their independent operation.
When word got out that Gary Scelzi was looking to retire, Hagan made his way over to Schumacher's bustling pit area full of fuel Funny Cars and Top Fuel dragsters.
"He was like, 'Who are you? What's going on?"
Schumacher gave the kid his shot, and just when it looked like Hagan was ready for the big time, the economy tanked.
"As soon as I signed the contract with him, the economy fell apart in '08, and I was supposed to drive the Mopar/Oakley car, and Don calls me up and says, 'Well, Mopar and Oakley are pulling out," Hagan recalled.
Schumacher still went ahead with the deal, seeing promise in the young Hagan.
"We signed a contract for a three-year deal with him; Don put a lot of money into it. My dad, through Shelor Motor Mile, put a lot of money into it and kept me out there for that first year until we found new sponsorship," Hagan said. "And then it just, it's tried to fall apart as much as it's ever tried to come together.
"I think that's just drag racing down here. I think everybody kind of sees you been out here for a long time, but I've seen a lot of people come and go, and a lot of good people come and go and I'm just very blessed to still be here and be a part of this."
Hagan will be the first to admit the breaks kept coming his way, and they still do.
"Then Tony Stewart scooped me up and kept this thing going," Hagan said. "It's crazy because there are so many chances for things to fall through or the economy gets bad or sponsorship pulls out, and you just always have to be hustling behind the scenes and trying to put some new stuff together and doing new things. The days of one car, one sponsor, there's very few of them out here. So you just blessed every run that you get to get in a car and that you pull a helmet on, put a mouthpiece in, and get to go 300 miles an hour, man."
And even better, have both carburetors hooked up.
HOME IS WHERE THE NITRO IS - This weekend’s Betway NHRA Carolina Nationals is the first “home” race for fledgling Top Fuel team owner Rick Ware.
The veteran racer of other motorsports disciplines is not only anxious to experience the present at zMAX Dragway outside Charlotte, he’s also excited to see his plans implemented for the Top Fuel team’s future. Driver Clay Millican, a six-time IHRA Top Fuel champion, has a long-term contract to drive Ware’s PartsPlus/Nurtec ODT dragster. A new Don Schumacher Racing car is already being built that is identical to Millican’s current 2019 model.
Ware, 62, has been involved in motorsports most of his life. He competed in the 1984 Long Beach Grand Prix for Indy-type cars, and he made one NASCAR Cup Series start in 1990 at Watkins Glen. His son Cody has driven the family’s Cup car full-time the past two seasons, and another son, Carson, competed in the Triple-A NASCAR Xfinity ranks in 2020-21.
That said, Rick Ware described himself as having been a “huge drag racing fan my whole life.” He grew up in southern California, and attended races at “every major track up and down the West Coast.” Ware eventually moved to North Carolina to pursue a NASCAR career, but that was ended by an injury in 2000.
Now he’s added professional drag racing to his NASCAR Cup, IndyCar and WeatherTech SportsCar operations.
“I’ve always, always loved drag racing, especially fuel racing,” Ware said. “Every time I could go somewhere and hang out and watch, I did. But from a business standpoint, I could never put all the pieces together to make it work out until now.
“There are a lot of benefits and opportunities NHRA offers that other series don’t, especially tied to hospitality and the interaction with the fan. … I’ve been trying to put together the format to leverage it sponsor-wise. Once we got a sponsor strong enough to where we needed to do a lot of hospitality, it started making a lot of sense.
“It’s very expensive to do hospitality at IndyCar and NASCAR races. NASCAR’s the 800-pound gorilla, so huge, everything’s outside the track. Here, a guy gets a pit pass and you can do hand-to-hand combat and sampling and people can eat while the show’s going on. One of the shows is in watching these guys run 3.70s, and the other is watching the crew guys tear it all down and put it back together.”
The challenge now isn’t solely to provide hospitality, but to win races. That’s something Millican hasn’t done since 2018, when he captured back-to-back events at Topeka and Chicago. This year, Millican’s best outing was a runner-up showing at Phoenix in February, and he is 11th in the standings following last weekend’s Countdown to the Championship opener at Mohnton, Pa.
Since he purchased the team from Doug Stringer, a friend of more than 20 years, in late August, Ware’s already made an impact toward ending the drought. The team has relocated from Illinois to RWR headquarters in Mooresville, which is less than 30 minutes from zMAX Dragway.
“Doug was getting to the point, for multiple reasons, in reducing his capacity,” Ware said, “and I was looking at buying a complete team. It didn’t happen last year, but it came close. I bought two trucks and trailers, a car and a bunch of stuff from Schumacher, and most of it’s still sitting there.
“This deal came about and got us here really half a year early. We were going to run two or three races with what I was going to put together, but I’m glad it didn’t happen because it would not have looked good. With this scenario, we came in, we met with everybody individually, told them what our dream is in growing the program, and getting everybody more of what they needed.
“This is going to be part of our cornerstone. I can foresee in the future adding a second something in the fuel ranks,” adding that “a Funny Car makes a lot of sense in the long term.”
But first things first, Ware said.
“Here’s the reality: I made a promise to myself and to these people that we’re going to make this a contending team before we get sidetracked,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we may not add a Top Fuel car later in the year because I see the benefits of having a good tune-up to put other people on the trailer. I’ve already seen that’s how this business works. But what we’re going to do is upgrade the equipment we’ve got with some nicer stuff, so we’re probably going to sell off some of the Schumacher stuff. The new car is identical to this one, so everything we learn here will work on that one.”
THE FUN FACTOR - How does the saying go? Education is important, but having fun is importanter?
Grammar shortcomings aside, Larry Morgan has a master's degree in Pro Stock drag racing, and now he's working on his doctorate in having fun.
"I wouldn't be here if I wasn't having fun," said Morgan, driving the Phillips Connect/VitaC Shot Pro Stock Camaro. "That I can guarantee you."
Morgan, who is a past U.S. Nationals Pro Stock champion and 19-time NHRA national event winner, said it was the relationships he'd built over decades that brought him back to drag racing as a crewman for Mike Castellana and the chance to work with drag racing legend Frank Manzo. The challenge of bringing a small team to competitiveness is what put him back in the seat.
"Not sure what I'd do if I didn't do this crap," Morgan said. "And it's been awful good to both of me, so I enjoy doing it."
When Morgan parked his Pro Stock operation, it was then he realized golf or fishing just didn't fill the considerable void leaving drag racing created.
"I've got a three-acre pond full of fish, and I never go fishing," Morgan said. "I never do. All my neighbors do, but I don't. None of that ever appealed to me."
When he joined with team owner Mark Beaver and Chip Lofton, Morgan understood the team's challenges.
"I'm not going to say winning's overrated," Morgan said. "When you do win, it's something you never forget. It's one thing you never forget. I think it's more of a challenge of doing better; taking something and making it better is something you never get away from.
"We're underfunded for what we need. And listen, I'll tell you right off the bat, when Beaver asked me to drive this car, I told him no, because I knew it was not going to be funded like I was used to. And for the most part, most of the time, I was underfunded. But I said, 'What do you want to do?"
"He said, 'I want to go out and have fun."
The more Morgan thought about it, the more he realized throughout his career, he'd never really been able to race for fun.
"I said [to Beaver], 'Well, explain fun."
"He said, 'That's being out here and being somewhat competitive."
"I said, 'Well, do you really think that you can kick Greg Anderson and Erica Enders' ass? Because if you think that, you need to stop right now." He said, 'Well, no. I'd like to, but I know those expectations aren't possible with my budget."
" I said, "If that's what you want to do, you got the wrong guy. Now, if you want to have fun and enjoy doing it and not break the bank, I'll do it with you. It takes too much money, too many people, and you're going to expect more all the time." And that's why we're doing what we do."
Beaver laid out his plan for 8-10 races, which sold Morgan.
"I'm not into doing 22 races or whatever we used to do. That burned me out. And the other thing is you can't make enough money to fund 22 races. Nobody can. I lived that, and I was able to do it. Can't do it anymore. And I'm being very honest. So, I mean, to come out here and run ten races, and spending $200,000 or $300,000, that's okay. But coming out here and running 22 races and spending a million dollars, that ain't me, and that's not them."
Morgan said racing Pro Stock back when he did it had a risk versus reward that was severely out of whack. He believes it's a little better than it used to be because of the efforts of Richard Freeman, whom he credits for keeping the class alive.
The Beaver Motorsports team, Morgan confirmed, is receiving technical assistance from Elite Motorsports.
"I got to give Richard Freeman a lot of credit," Morgan said. "Richard kept this class going without a doubt, and I'm proud of him for doing it."
"I'm proud that Richard's doing what he's doing. He wants to keep this class going. The other people [NHRA] don't want it to be. They didn't want Pro Stock to be here. They want all fuel, and he's proven to them that he can make it happen, so they need to have it here. That's the bottom line."
Friday night in Charlotte, Morgan game the fans a show worthy of fuel car recognition by accident. When both wheelie bars broke, the car pulled a wheelstand that provided the wow factor of the day.
NITRO SHAMING - Alex Laughlin knew exactly what he was doing. He was manipulating; as he saw it, when you manipulate for the good of drag racing, it is perfectly acceptable.
Laughlin knew exactly the right buttons to push to get extreme sport, adrenalin-connoisseur Travis Pastrana to add a Top Fuel dragster to his crowded resume of machinery experiences.
"I've been a fan of this guy's my whole life, to be honest," Laughlin said. "Who hasn't? He's like the poster child of motorsports as a whole. I have a mutual friend that worked on the film crew for Nitro Circus, and he's the one that put me through to Travis. And I told him, 'You can't have a show called Nitro anything without ever experiencing what nitro is."
"I asked him if he would ever want to take a lap in a Top Fuel dragster. And he said, 'Hell yeah."
Pastrana is expected to fly into Charlotte on Sunday evening and on Monday begin making licensing runs behind the wheel of the Scott Palmer Top Fuel dragster; the same Havoline-branded dragster Laughlin is driving at the Carolina Nationals. Originally the experience was supposed to happen following last season's Vegas 2 event and coincide with the SEMIA Show. Scheduling conflicts prevented it from happening.
"We have just kind of been talking over the next couple of months," Laughlin explained. "We've had this set up since March, and this is literally the only weekend that he could make it work. And even at that, he's barely making it work because he's flying in Sunday night at like midnight. He's racing somewhere else this weekend, also. So I don't know. I think it's cool that he's taken the time out to come and do it."
Laughlin is a lot like Pastrana in that he's always taking advantage of opportunities. Right now, Laughlin's scorecard includes stints in Pro Stock, Pro Modified, Top Alcohol Dragster, and most recently, the No Prep Kings, where he's paying his dues on the series' Futures Series.
"It wasn't really something that I was trying to get into; it kind of accidentally happened," Laughlin said. "But at this point, I'm really happy that it did because we've been having so much fun. We went to Tulsa, Idaho, Tucson, and then Denver. And the car was, obviously, set up as a radial car for years, and we've slowly been converting it. It still has some things to go to get all of the radial out of it.
"We've been making as good of runs as anybody out there, and out of, I think, 16 or 17 runs altogether that we have at No Prep Kings, there's only been maybe one or two runs that were aborted. Every single run, pretty much, we get down the track. It's consistent, and it's consistently very fast."
Focusing on the weekend, Laughlin would love nothing more than to put Pastrana in a national event-winning car for his foray into the original extreme sport - drag racing.
"It's as hardcore as it gets," Laughlin said. "There's nothing quicker or faster. And for somebody that's a complete adrenaline junkie, like Travis jumping out of an airplane with no parachute on, I think this is just right up his alley."
Pastrana meshing with drag racing, as Laughlin sees it, would be a great coup for drag racing in the entertainment world, especially with the high television ratings from the recently completed Pep Boys NHRA Nationals in Reading, Pa.
"Somebody like Travis because he's into rally cars and a lot of the other sports, auto sports, motorsports that do have a younger demographic," Laughlin said. "So it definitely helps get more people involved because I think everybody has probably heard of in NHRA and drag racing in general. But being able to have somebody like Travis come and represent the sport as a whole, it certainly doesn't do any harm at all."
ARGGGGGHHH ON THE MOUNTAIN - Only in America can a drag racer who raced his first national event wearing a pirate eye patch and won one day lead Mountain Motor Pro Stock qualifying at an NHRA national event.
Elijah Morton drove his 800-plus cubic inch Mustang to a 6.249 elapsed time at 226.39 miles per hour to set the pace for first-day qualifying at the NHRA Carolina Nationals, the fourth outing for the large displacement factory hot rods.
Though these cars have been in the six-teens, a 6.2-second run is no joke.
“Yeah, that’s strolling,” Morton agreed.
Morton, who leads Tommy Lee (6.252), Indy winner Johnny Pluchino (6.271), and John DeFlorian Jr (6.357), admits he wasn’t surprised by what his Jacksonville, NC-based Mustang yielded on its one and only Friday run.
“We know we got a good piece under the hood, and we knew we had good air here. Charlotte’s a great race track,” Morton explained. “AED and Allen’s Competition has been working hard on getting me a good tune-up, and my crew just put me a good package together. The driver got lucky and drove pretty good.”
Morton has developed a knack for driving well at the right time. Now, back to the pirate thing. In 1999, Morton and his brother Glenn planned to go race their first national event, the IHRA Amalie Oil Nationals in Bradenton, Fla.
Morton had aced driving their Top Sportsman Corvette to the point they felt the driver was ready to step on the big stage of fast bracket racing.
The problem began when Morton thought he had aced snow skiing equally. The week before the event, Morton decided he was going to try the more advanced course and while his accident didn’t kill him, it didn’t do him any good either.
“I thought I got pretty good at skiing, so I thought I would try the Diamond,” Morton admitted. “I come to find out I wasn’t quite as good as I thought I was. I busted my noggin pretty good in my head and I was seeing double the week before the race. So we come up with a plan. The plan was to wear a pirate’s patch so I wouldn’t see but one bulb instead of two bulbs, and I wore a pirate’s patch at Bradenton.”
Morton stopped three world champions en route to winning the national event in his first outing.
Morton doesn’t have his patch at zMax Dragway, but what he does have are a lot of local fans cheering him on and a good chance the time will hold for Sunday’s eliminations.
“A lot of people pulling for us here, and our fans are close by. It’s just special,” Morton said. “A special time to be sitting on the pole and be good to leave on the pole. So we’ll see how the next day goes in qualifying, but right now, we need to enjoy the next 24 hours at least.”
PLUCHINO STILL SMILING - Mountain Motor Pro Stock is part of the program this weekend for only the fourth time in 2022. Among the nine entrants are the winner and runner-up from the last event, the U.S. Nationals, in Johnny Pluchino and Tony Gillig, respectively.
They put on quite a final-round duel at Indianapolis. Pluchino snared a slight advantage at the green, then went on to nip his Illinois foe, 6.341 seconds, 220.69 mph, to Gillig’s 6.349, 221.56.
“It was pretty spectacular,” said Pluchino, who had never before attended the U.S. Nationals. “You hear about it your whole life, and there’s definitely a feeling in the air once you experience it. You really feel it after you go through the race and you win. The excitement that I had winning that race was a different feeling than I’ve ever had winning in the past. It’s special.”
Pluchino said that weather, track conditions and going with his gut on the set-up all played a role in his victory.
“We weren’t the fastest coming out” in the first round of qualifying, he said, “but we made some changes going into eliminations, and then we pretty much left it alone. I didn’t have any data from the semifinals – the Racepak didn’t record – so we just went out there and left it alone. Fortunately the race track and conditions were pretty similar throughout the day. We said, ‘Let’s go out there and run this car, let me do my job,’ and it worked out.
“I don’t want a blinder on my helmet, so if I can see you, I’m probably losing the race. If I can just barely see you out of the corner of my eye, it’s gonna be a real tight one. It’s going to be me and you at the stripe, coupla thou(sandths) one way or the other,” he added. “But I didn’t see anybody next to me all weekend long, so I had a pretty good idea that I had the win. Not too many guys drive around our Jon Kaase horsepower, so once you get it in fifth and you’re out there strolling and nobody’s next to you, you have a pretty good feeling.”
Pluchino said hopes to repeat the Indy performance with a victory here – and to then use that as a springboard in next weekend’s PDRA race at GALOT Motorsports Park in the eastern half of the state. Pluchino, the 2020 PDRA Extreme Pro Stock champion, holds a 111-point edge over Gillig with only GALOT and the Oct. 14-16 season finale at Virginia Motorsports Park remaining.
“Racing is all about momentum. You’re working on your tune-up 24/7, always working on your set-up,” the Commack, N.Y., driver said. “When you’re running good, as long as you don’t mess something up, you can keep it rolling. We’re still working on our stuff, we’re still making progress and running good, and when you’re doing that, you really have a good chance to parlay it into the next race. Hopefully, that’s the case and the driver can keep his head on straight. I want to hold another one of those little Wallys.”