2022 NHRA FALLNATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
CAN A SHOE DETERMINE THE NEXT CHAMPION? ENDERS RECEIVES MIKE AIELLO AWARD, BROGDON RETURNS FOR FIRST TIME AFTER JULY TOPEKA CRASH
THE SOLE OF DRAG RACING – It was such a juicy idea, and Rob Wendland just knew it would help Johnny Gray win Funny Car trophies and championships for Don Schumacher Racing.
His colleagues thought he was crazy, he said, but he kept telling himself, “This is going to be as cool as hell.”
The crew chief knew that just the right kind of shoe, an appropriate one with just the right kind of sole, helps “read” the racetrack. And reading the racetrack correctly then tuning the car accordingly is at least one secret to success in drag racing. So, he figured, “Why go with ‘appropriate’ when you could have perfect?”
“I had a pair of Vans,” Wendland said, and he found a discarded Goodyear slick tire to test his theory with them. “I put ’em on the slick and outlined each shoe, and I cut the tire to fit my shoe. I put them underneath the hydraulic jack overnight and glued them together. It looked nice, because I ground them all flush.”
But Wendland, who tuned for Terry McMillen for many years and today is helping Dan Mercier establish his Top Fuel program, found out what happens when hypothesis meets reality.
“They were heavy,” he said of the shoes. “So I went to the track with them, and I couldn’t twist my foot. It about broke my ankle. And when it was wet, you were going for a ride – wheee! – because there were no lines [grooves] to get rid of the water. The danger is when it’s wet or when there’s a little bit of oil. Even when going in and out of the trailer [in the pits], it was just too much. It was a bad idea.”
Actually, it was a worthy and clever idea that just didn’t work as planned.
Returning to practicality, Wendland still trusted his shoes, now Pumas, to help him understand the consistency of the track and all its attendant attributes in order to determine the traction level of the racing surface. He’s no different in that respect than fellow longtime crew chiefs Alan Johnson, Rahn Tobler, Mike Domagala, or Brian Corradi.
“I think Alan Johnson has worn the same shoes forever. I’ve changed brands, but I always buy five pairs,” Wendland said. In his fulltime racing days, he said he himself would wear out about three pairs of shoes a season.
Several years ago, Tobler received a new pair of shoes and in short order put them back in the box they came in, because the new pair didn’t have the same “feel,” the same sensitivity, that could help him interpret the track conditions.
Domagala, Leah Pruett’s co-crew chief at Tony Stewart Racing, said he understands that. He said he favors the Brooks brand but runs through an average of one pair a year because he doesn’t wear them all day long at the racetrack.
And he learned the hard way about rubbing his foot vigorously back and forth on the track surface.
“I tore the cartilage in my knee and had to have surgery,” Domagala said. As a result, he just toes the track a bit.
The same goes for Antron Brown Motorsports’ Corradi, whose exuberance at the starting line left him an injured earlier in his career.
“I toasted my knee. My meniscus had to be replaced years ago. I contributed to doing this,” Corradi said, simulating a grinding motion with his foot. “So now I do my deal [like this],” he said, demonstrating a much gentler approach to traction testing.
And like his counterparts, Corradi has his favorite brand – New Balance. And he said he can tell not only the difference among shoe manufacturers but also the changes in a new version of a particular model. He’s partial to the New Balance 1540 series but can feel the subtleties of a slight change in composition within the same model. When he had to replace his old faithfuls, he bought the same style but detected immediately that he had purchased a newer model. He said, “I was like, “Oh, oh, oh, oh, now, wait a minute here.”
He developed his preference simply through familiarity: “I just like that shoe because I've worn it the last 10 or 15 years out here. It's always been a New Balance, but their sole is the same material. I could tell. If I walk out there with these, even though these are New Balance, completely different. I can tell.”
Dave Grubnic, Brittany Force’s crew chief on the Top Fuel side of John Force Racing, said proper shoes are, indeed, a big deal.
“We use multiple instruments when we’re out there, and it’s the collective sum of what all these instruments give us that helps us decide on how hard we want to push the cars, along with the track temperature. So, shoes, yes, definitely [are a key part of the equation],” he said. “It’s the feel. You can change shoes and change the feel. You get used to something, and you want to keep that a constant.”
However, Grubnic cautioned, “When you look at shoes, you have to factor in what percentage of that do we base our decisions on? The technical tools are still very valid. What we do is we use the technical tools and we probably weight them the most. When everything lines up and the shoes confirm it, it gives you more probability of success.”
He said, “I think all the crew chiefs probably have their own [preferences]. That’s up to each individual crew chief on what he’s looking for. I don’t think there’s one standard there.”
That’s where Grubnic played information close to the vest. He said he looks for “what suits me” and declined to divulge what that mysterious something might be. He said crew chiefs regard that information as privileged. “We all have our own little niche,” he said, quickly adding that “what works for me might not work for somebody else. So rather than protect what we have, we don’t want to mislead somebody and send them down a path that doesn't work for their program.”
So what’s the magical quality that a shoe sole has for a drag-racing crew chief?
“The pressure you put down on your foot and go out there and twist, how much surface area you have determines what that feel is,” Wendland said. “So, if you have just a bunch of nubs sticking up, it feels like the track’s really loose, because you’re just on top of these nubs and [the shoe] doesn’t have flat traction. It’s like comparing a passenger-car tire to a slick: How much traction are you going to get with a passenger tire, compared to a slick? So the flatter the surface is, the more resistance you’re going to have when you’re using that foot. That also determines what the track feels like. Back in 2018, when we [he and the McMillen team] won the U.S. Nationals, I could do a pirouette, and it was like, ‘Oh, s---. We’ve got to do something different. We’ve got to back up and punt.’ We ended up winning the race because we completely backed the car down and backed the car down.
“It was a combination of what happened at Indy and Gainesville and places where they have a lot of different categories,” he said. “You have a lot of different [makes of] tires: Mickey Thompson, Hoosier, Goodyear. You get so many cars running on there that you get this conglomeration of goo that it’s not the same traction as you would [have] if you’re going to a race with less cars.”
That means a crew chief can opt for varying clutch settings and other variables in the car’s set-up.
Grubnic was amused by Wendland’s shoe-sole experiment and said, “That’s why you have to find something that fits into a window that still allows you to walk up and down the track and not get stuck on it.”
When he made the transition from driver to crew chief, Grubnic said the practice of selecting a useful shoe came naturally. “Common sense dictates that. When you look at the tools that we have available to us and what we’re trying to achieve, it makes sense to use as many of these tools as possible to come up with some sort of formula standard. It’s a sum of all these tools. So when you look at shoes, I wouldn’t put this on the front page of the newspaper that this is the be-all and end-all of what we do. It’s just another tool that we use to help us make a decision.”
But it is part of the sole of drag racing.
MIKE AIELLO AWARD GOES TO ENDERS - Current and four-time Pro Stock champion Erica Enders is the 2021 recipient of the Mike Aiello Award.
CompetitionPlus.com owner and publisher Bobby Bennett made the surprise presentation at the close of qualifying Saturday during the NHRA FallNationals at Texas Motorplex at Ennis, near Dallas.
The honor, commonly referred to as “The Spirit of Drag Racing Award,” recognizes someone who has persevered and remained positive in spite of hardship.
Aiello, like Enders a Houston native, spent his final years confined to a wheelchair after a workplace injury. Despite physical hardship and severe mobility limitations, he not only attended drag races but made dozens of friends among racers, crew members, and media with his positive outlook and unselfish behavior. Aiello passed away December 29, 2006, at age 39, at Santa Monica, California.
Enders’ career began at Houston 31 years ago at age eight as a Jr. Dragster competitor and has traveled through the Super Gas, Pro Stock, Super Comp, Factory Stock Showdown, Stock, Competition Eliminator, and Pro Modified classes. She and sister Courtney inspired the 2003 Disney movie “Right On Track.”
Enders has made her biggest mark in the Pro Stock class. She owns the NHRA Pro Stock’s fastest speed, a 215.55-mph clocking at Englishtown, N.J., that has held up since 2014. She has 41 “Wally” trophies. She is the only woman to earn Pro Stock championships, races, and bonus events. And she has matched both class icons Anderson and the late Lee Shepherd with four series crowns.
Enders passed drag-racing icon Shirley Muldowney (Top Fuel) and Pro Stock Motorcycle trailblazer and 46-time winner Angelle Sampey for the most championships among NHRA women.
“It’s pretty awesome to join the winningest female, Angelle, and then of course, Shirley, who’s one of my heroes, paved the way for all of the girls nowadays and a tough woman who has offered a lot of solid advice for me,” Enders said.
“It’s a goal I set as a child, that I wanted to be the best race-car driver on the planet, not just female. I don’t feel like I’m anywhere near done yet,” Enders said.
Her career also has had its roadblocks and speed bumps: short-lived sponsorship deals, the occasional run-in with an on-track rival, the heartbreak of a broken car at the starting line in the final round, losing close races, red-lighting, and being tricked by malfunctioning electronics telling her she won when she didn’t. The business-management and marketing major from Texas A&M has learned lessons about corporate cunning that has made posting stellar reaction times and hitting shift points seem easy.
“People on the outside don’t understand necessarily what it takes and don’t necessarily understand what it takes from you, either,” she said.
Those experiences only have made her stronger.
“I believe that our ability to persevere through any circumstance is what makes us great,” Enders said of her Elite Performance team with whom she has registered all four championships. “No matter what the world, the NHRA, our competitors, or our haters throw at us, we find a way to dig deep and play with all the heart we have. Individually we all have strengths, but together we are unstoppable. I believe and trust in this team with everything that I have. They are the reason why I am here. For all the time my guys sacrifice from being with their kids and their wives, it means the world to me. I’m glad that we did this together as a family.
“Our fearless leader, Richard Freeman, organized the most perfect group of people. We crawled our way to the top, earning every bonus point, every qualifying position, every round win, every national event win and every world championship. We did it with our backs against the wall, and we did it together. That's what makes our team special. It’s what makes us ‘Elite,’” she said.
Her 2019 title, she said that November day, “means a lot because of the valleys that we’ve been through. It was a challenge for us. On a personal level, I have struggled. I’ve struggled mentally in the race car. I’ve struggled in my personal life. It’s just an awesome feeling to be back on top.”
Winning amid so many variables is a roller coaster of moods, Enders said.
“There’s a lot of emotion that plays into it. To give your whole life to something from the time I was eight years old – and the things my dad and mom sacrificed to allow my sister and me to do what we want for a living and chase our dreams, sacrificing their own . . . It’s been a really long road, and it’s not easy at all. There have been way more valleys than peaks. I talk about it all the time, but I feel that story is so important. You preserve, and you never give up,” she said.
“There are so many people who stab you in the back and pull the rug out from underneath you along the way. And it has nothing to do with gender. It’s how this world works. It’s very cutthroat, and it’s very challenging, honestly, to be a part of it,” Enders, who turned 39 Oct. 8, said. “But I love what I do, and I love the guys I get to do it with every week. So I’m honored to be a champion and represent a sport I love, that I’m so passionate about, and have given [nearly 30] years of my life.”
She credits her achievements to “my dad [Gregg Enders], the Good Lord above, Richard Freeman . . . The key to this program is the people who stand behind it, starting with Richard Freeman but also Rick Jones, Mark Ingersoll, Rickie Jones. All these guys jump on deck and help me so much. Most importantly, they believe in me. That gives me all the confidence in the world.”
Enders joins a prestigious list of Mike Aiello Award recipients. Crew chief John Medlen received the inaugural Mike Aiello Award in 2007, followed by Funny Car driver Tim Wilkerson (2008), Pro Stock’s Mike Edwards (2009), International Hot Rod Association racer and journalist Michael Beard (2010), NHRA Funny Car racer Jack Beckman (2011), and former IHRA President Aaron Polburn (2012). Top Fuel racer Antron Brown and Top Alcohol Dragster’s Shawn Cowie shared the 2013 honor. Steve Johnson was honored in 2014, Don Schumacher in 2015, Leah Pruett in 2016, brothers Bobby and Dom Lagana in 2017, Top Fuel’s Terry McMillen in 2018, and multi-class veteran Rickie Smith in 2019. Competition Plus did not present the award in 2020, but last year Steve Torrence was the most recent recipient.
BROGDON DONE WITH PRO STOCK BUT STILL RACING AFTER CRASH – Rodger Brogdon is back at the dragstrip this weekend for the first time since he crashed his ’66 Chevy II station wagon in late July in the B/AA class at the divisional race at Topeka.
“I thought I broke my back. It hurt so bad,” the former Pro Stock driver said when reliving the accident that threw him against the guard wall in his lane, then shot him across the track into the opposite wall and caught on fire.
“I just really irritated an old back injury I had from moving concrete back in the day,” he said.
Brogdon said, “When it was burning, I couldn’t move. When I moved, I thought I was going to pass out. Then the fire got so bad I just gritted my teeth as hard as I could and managed to crawl out of there. That’s one thing I have a fear of, burning up.”
He said it reminded him of his 2010 wreck at St. Louis in the Pro Stock car: “I was upside down. I’d already taken my steering wheel off. When I flipped my seat belt off, I flew out of there. But I got stuck on the steering column. It went through my pants. So the more I tried to get out, I kept sliding down the steering column. I was like a fish on a hook. Then it kept blowing fire at me. The NHRA guy said, “We’re going to use this as a training film of how NOT to put out a fire.’ I said, ‘Yeah – don’t blow it at the driver.’”
What frightened many was the fact Brogdon, who had gotten from the car on his own power, was transported to the hospital – and the ambulance didn’t turn on the flashing lights or the siren. “So what does that usually mean?” he asked rhetorically. No one knew his condition or the extent of his injuries for about four or five hours, the length of time he spent in the hospital there at Topeka.
He said that after the accident, “Everybody told me, ‘Maybe it’s a sign you should quit.’ I said, ‘No – it’s a sign it ain’t my time.’ So I went and bought another one [race car]. That’s what I do, drive race cars.”
However, Brogdon said he has left the Pro Stock class. His name was on the Pro Stock entry list for this Texas FallNationals event. “I’m just racing my Comp [Competition Eliminator] car. I told ‘em three months ago I’m not racing [in that class] anymore. I love to race Pro Stock, but I’m not having $40,000 worth of weekend fun. That’s what it cost. Forty thousand dollars is a lot of money. I need somebody to give me a pile of money. I can afford it. That has nothing to do with it. Then you Then you’ve got to do it 18 times a year.
“I can race Comp, have a 200-mile-an-hour car, run 6.80s, and have a blast for $300,000-$400,000 a year,” Brogdon said. “The thrill’s the same. But the best part about it is if Rodger doesn’t want to go anywhere this weekend, guess what – I don’t have to go. With that other deal [Pro Stock], I don’t like having to make that commitment.”
The station wagon will live again – but only as a street car.
“I’m getting it rebuilt. I’m going to make a street ride,” Brogdon said.
“The wagon was so hard to drive. It was a station wagon. It had no downforce. Everytime it got around 800-900 feet, it always [got loose in the rear end]. You had to drive it down there. It was hard to concentrate on anything else going,” he said.
“I had already decided I was going to race it the rest of this year and then do something different, ‘cause this car’s going to get me killed or get me hurt,” Brogdon said. “It’s just not made for 200 miles an hour.”
NO FAKING IT - There are just some things you cannot fake in Texas. Or at least Justin Ashley couldn't pull off the New York bluff.
Ashley drove his way to an impressive Top Fuel win at last year's Texas NHRA FallNationals and landed the ultimate prize - the Cowboy Hat.
So where's the problem?
"It was the first time I ever wore a cowboy hat in my life," Ashley, who lives on New York's Long Island, admitted. "I had no idea; there was a way that you could put it on forward, there was a way you could put it on backward. I just thought you put it on."
Ashley's hat swallowed his head, and in doing so, he also learned a bit of Texas hat etiquette.
"I also didn't realize that you can't touch it by the brim either," Ashley added. "There are a number of different rules that I learned, so coming into this year, I feel like I'm a little more experienced in that regard."
Cowboy hats weren't his only lack of experience.
"I never wore cowboy boots before," Ashley admitted. "I never wore a cowboy hat. This was all a brand-new experience for me. A fun one. I'm glad. I'll gladly do it again, but this time the first thing I'm going to do is make sure that cowboy hat is on the right way because I haven't been able to live it down ever since."
KRAWIEC TURNING CORNER – At three of the previous five Pro Stock Motorcycle races, four-time champion Eddie Krawiec has advanced to the semifinals or better. And looking back at his runner-up finishes at Sonoma and Topeka, he said, “Something happened to me: Joey Gladstone was in the other lane.”
Krawiec, the longtime Vance & Hines racer, said he’s pleased to see Gladstone rise to prominence in the class: “It’s awesome to see some new blood coming out here and winning. It’s great for the category.”
As for his own status – he’s in fourth place, 106 points behind leader Matt Smith – Krawiec said he’s making progress with his Mission Foods Suzuki. Before this season, he hadn’t ridden a Suzuki since 2003. Now, he said, he’s “turning a corner. For me, it was about getting more runs on the motorcycle. As I get more runs on the bike, I get more comfortable, and muscle memory kicks in. It becomes natural for it to happen rather than trying to think about what you need to do.
“I’ve got a great motorcycle. I’m coming into where I need to be at the right time,” he said. “It’s about being consistent on race day for the [Countdown] races.” He said the racer who emerges with the championship is “whoever’s fastest and steady.”
Krawiec’s next victory will be his 50th, lifting him past Top Fuel’s Doug Kalitta and dual-nitro-class legend Don Prudhomme and pulling him within six of all-time class leader and Vance & Hines teammate Andrew Hines.
The number 50, of course, would make Krawiec proud to have in his trophies count. But he isn’t focused on reaching the milestone.
“I just want to win. It doesn’t matter if it’s my 50th. It’s not like I’m going to get 50 and hopefully get off the bike. I want to win 58-59-60-65, whatever it takes,” Krawiec said.
He said he just wants to “stay focused on my program” and “look forward, race forward.”
INGWERSEN IMPROVING – Marc Ingwersen had seven DNQs in his first 19 Pro Stock Motorcycle races before this season. Now he’s qualified for the Countdown to the Championship for the first time, with not a single failure to qualify in 12 races this year.
He’s eighth in the standings and in the playoffs was as high as sixth after Reading, where he set a career-best elapsed time (6.78 seconds in the quarter-mile). In the most recent race, at St. Louis, the 52-year-old from Upper Sandusky, Ohio, improved his career-best speed (198.82 mph).
“My team and I have been working very hard to get to this point,” Ingwersen said. “We have had some technical and electrical problems over the last couple of years that we now have sorted out.
“We are not receiving any help from anyone, nor are we aligned with another team. My crew chief/engine builder Jon Miller and his son, the tuner, Parker Miller, have done an outstanding job in finding power this year. And with the combination of myself getting comfortable with the bike has allowed us to go a few rounds this year,” he said.
HOW TIME FLIES BY - Drag racing has provided a long and winding road for Angelle Sampey. The three-time Pro Stock Motorcycle champion, also a 46-time winner, secured her 58th No. 1 qualifier Saturday at the Texas Motorplex.
With the NHRA into its second half of the Countdown, Sampey is a bona fide contender in her 26th season as a rider on the NHRA tour. She wants a fourth championship, and her best chance at getting it is not to overthink the task at hand.
"It's what I want to do before I'm done racing for good, and I have to figure out a way to just stop thinking about that and just enjoy my time out here," Sampey said. "Enjoy every run on the track, and I try to talk myself into that every time you guys interview me. Every time I post anything on social media, I'm reminding myself of how lucky I am to be the rider of this Vance and Hines/Mission Suzuki, and just enjoy the ride and stop worrying about everything, but it's just hard when you want it as bad as I do.
"I haven't lost the passion for winning for 26 years. It's only grown. I mean, I thought for sure by now it would be no big deal. If I win, I win. If I don't, I don't. Oh, well, I still get to go home happy and healthy with a beautiful family, but I want to win it, even more today than I did 26 years ago."
One thing she would never have envisioned 26 years ago is the team she'd be with. She pondered her answer if someone had asked her if she'd be a rider for Vance & Hines team.
"Never going to happen," Sampey responded. "I mean, the day they asked me, I thought it was a joke. I thought they were playing some huge, really cruel, practical joke on me. Then even when I knew it was for real happening, it took several months. When I would put the uniform shirt on, I would get chills. I can't believe this is happening.
"I remember one time, probably six races into the first season with them, I was sitting in the lounge, and I looked out the window. I just saw all the Vance and Hines stuff and I realized I am inside the Vance and Hines trailer, and I got chills all over my body. It was, this is so crazy. When you race against your rivals for as many years as I did, this is the team that meant the world to me to beat.” – Bobby Bennett
TOP FUEL CONTENDERS MORE RESOLUTE THAN EVER, FUNNY CAR FIGHT FEROCIOUS, NEW BIKE TEAM ENLISTING RECRUITS IN OUTREACH TO U.S. SOLDIERS, SCRAPPERS CREW CHIEF FLYNN REMEMBERS BIG DAY IN ‘BIG D’, TEXAN-BY-CHOICE SCHUMACHER AT HOME AT MOTORPLEX
NO ONE READY TO BOW OUT – Nobody in the Top Fuel Countdown field has been eliminated yet, and any one of the 12 championship-eligible drivers can mix up the standings this weekend at the Texas FallNationals at Texas Motorplex, near Dallas.
This race marks the start of the second half of the six-event Countdown, and it began Friday with the second through seventh seeds within 74 points of each other and No. 7 Doug Kalitta just 88 points behind leader Justin Ashley.
Ashley days ago shook off his first-round loss to No. 4-ranked Mike Salinas at St. Louis, and Salinas has stopped thinking about his second-round defeat against No. 6 Josh Hart. Likewise, Antron Brown put his Round 1 stumble against Clay Millican behind him. And the whole pack – Steve Torrence, Brittany Force, Salinas, Brown, Hart, and Kalitta – have been ready for days to take advantage of four qualifying sessions and maybe one another’s mistakes to position themselves for a title run in the final two races, at Las Vegas and Pomona, Calif.
Ashley said he didn’t put too much stock in that St. Louis surprise for him and hi Phillips Connect/Vita C Dragster team: “Yeah, I mean, I don't think it puts any more pressure on us. We certainly left ourselves vulnerable. We left the door open – that much is for sure. And you know that in the Countdown, the margin for error is very small. So, yes, when you have a race like that, where you have a round one exit, you really can't afford to have that happen again. But at the same time, there's no added pressure or anything like that. We just put that race behind us already. We learned from it and moved on. So for us, it's all about Dallas. It’s not about Vegas. It's not about Pomona. Right now, it's about Dallas and going out there and putting our best foot forward. And come the end of Dallas, we want to make sure that we collected enough bonus points, that we stacked enough round wins to feel good about where we're at heading into the last two races.”
St. Louis winner Steve Torrence has been champing at the bit to bring his momentum to his home track. “Being able to capitalize on some of the things that transpired Sunday in St. Louis was huge for us, and we needed that. It was a good weekend, and we're carrying that momentum going into Dallas. We've had a lot of success at Dallas and been able to run well there. I think the track conditions are going to trend to be a little hotter than what we saw in St. Louis, which will be a little more difficult to navigate for the crew chiefs. It really [has] not been our greatest season up to this point, and it feels like things may have turned around a little bit. The car's performance is definitely there, and as a driver, that just gives you a lot of confidence going into it. But we got a lot of friends, a lot of family, a lot of customers that we work with that are going to be in this weekend, so we're really looking forward to it.
“We learned a lot about ourselves and about each other in 2017 when we went through what we went through [crashing in eliminations and destroying what he had said was his best car] here and struggling through the last final races of the Countdown. It's easy to triumph in victory, but when you're struggling, it really makes you get down and dirty and figure out what you got to do and who you are and where your team stands, and each one of these Capco boys have really just stood up tall and held ground and done the best we could to make it to this point,” the Kilgore, Texas, native said.
“And I said in St. Louis, I've never been a big fan of the Countdown, and I'm still not a fan of the Countdown. And at this point, we should all be racing for second, because Brittany has been so dominant this year. But that's the world we live in,” Torrence said. “So we have a shot at it, and we're going to see if we can get it to stick and what we can do.”
Force, who at the most recent race took her third straight second-round loss to find herself third in the standings, has shown resilience and said, “We’ll be looking for some big improvements.” She said, “Given where we are at in this Countdown, this Flav-R-Pac / Monster Energy team is only 30 points behind. We have struggled, but the top is still not out of our reach. Those 30 points are not much. We could make that up in one good, solid weekend. [We] found our problem – had a cylinder out right from the step – but we have answers on that. [At Dallas] had success there before, won the Stampede of Speed Friday Night Live qualifying event last year, and I’ve won the race in the past.”
In inviting the Ennis/Waxahachie/Dallas community to the Thursday fanfest at Waxahachie’s Railyard Park, Mike Salinas and family said, “We’re on a mission to spread love through motorsports.” They only meant away from competition. If Salinas leaves Dallas with a truckload of points – and he’s just five points behind Force and 35 from Ashley – he can guess which ones who won’t be loving him back.
Brown, already a three-time Top Fuel champion, staked his place in the title talk by winning at three of the past six events (Topeka, Indianapolis, Charlotte). He’s seeking his 50th No. 1 start and his 56th Top Fuel victory (72nd overall) in the Matco-sponsored “Tools For The Cause” Dragster. He’d like to score a cowboy-hat trick with a third race at Texas Motorplex after winning here in 2012 and 2016, both championship years for him. He said midweek that he’s “ready to get the big Stampede of Speed started. We’ve got three races left, and we find ourselves right there in the thick of things. This weekend will be a crucial race for us. The temperature is going to be hot, and we’re looking forward to that challenge. It’s not going to be dropping low E.T.s and running in the 3.60s. Normally, our Countdown races are in prime, throwdown conditions, so to have this hot one in the Countdown is kind of a curveball. The track is usually really good at the Motorplex, so even if it’s hot, we should still be able to make some good runs. Our focus is to qualify well, put our Matco ‘Tools for the Cause’ car in the top five on the ladder, and set ourselves up for race day. We’re very eager, very hungry, and ready to go into this race. We’re poised, but it’s time to be in attack mode. We live for these big ‘make or break’ moments, and I believe these are the moments where our team will shine.”
All that confident conversation hasn’t scared off St. Louis runner-up Hart. The No. 6-slotted R+L Carriers Dragster owner-driver isn’t concerned about the 64-point gap between himself and leader Ashley – or his 21-point deficit against No. 5 Brown. “My R+L Carriers team has been awesome, and I think we will keep surprising people,” Hart said. My R+L Carriers team has been awesome and I think we will keep surprising people.”
Closing in on the end of his first fulltime campaign and only his second overall, Hart said, “This season has been a learning experience that has taken off as fast as my 11,000 horsepower Top Fuel dragster. We are a single-car team, and this is my first year taking on this kind of challenge. I have a great team with Ron Douglas as crew chief and Chris Armstrong bought into the team, so we have great funding to compete with these multi-car established organizations. This is where I want to be: racing the best competition every weekend. We started in the Countdown No. 5, and we have held our own. But now is when we need to make a move. These last three races are critical, and I just want to have a shot on the last day of the season to win the championship. Anything’s possible, and if we are racing at Pomona with points and a half, I have a lot of confidence in this team.”
Doug Kalitta, who calls himself an eternal optimist, said his Mac Tools team is “seeing the performance numbers that will win us races.” If he should get hot and earn a third Dallas victory (adding to his triumphs in 2002 and 2013), his 88-point discrepancy would dwindle quickly.
Millican (-126), Shawn Langdon (-143), Reading winner Austin Prock (-144), Leah Pruett (-179), and leading Top Fuel Dallas winner Tony Schumacher (-187) are plenty capable of gaining some ground this weekend.
WHAT? ME, PRESSURED? – Top Fuel points leader Justin Ashley has said many times that he wants pressure. But does he? Wouldn’t an aspiring champion want to eliminate all of the competition and, consequently, all the pressure?
But Ashley, driver of the Phillips Connect /Vita C Dragster, insisted, “No, I do. I mean, I think that it's better than the alternative, right? I mean, the alternative is not being in a pressure situation because you didn't put yourself in that situation, because you're not competing for a championship. Pressure has a funny way of helping a lot of drivers to increase their focus on the task, increase their focus on what's going on.
“So I think that pressure is a privilege in a lot of ways. So not only me, I think a lot of other drivers will tell you the same thing. Look, of course, we’d love to lock it [the championship] up early and not have that pressure and all that stuff just like everybody would, but ultimately, that's not the kind of sport that we're in, for the most part,” Ashley said. “For the most part, it's going to come down to the wire. So, you know, as funny as it sounds, yeah, it's certainly better than the alternative, and we do like that little bit of added pressure.”
And he invited that pressure, figured right from the start of the season that he’d bring it on himself.
He said, “Yes, to be honest with you, I did” think of himself in championship terms. “I'm not surprised,” he said, “but I am humbled to be in this position. Having raced against teams that are the best in the world and the best of what they do, we have a healthy understanding and respect for the competition. The competition out here is absolutely fantastic. They are stout, but with that being said, we’re grateful to be in this position. But we certainly did expect to be in this position – not just because we rolled out of bed one day and just said, “you know what? We're going to win the championship.” But because of the work that we put in. We came in prepared. We've continued to prepare throughout the season. But during the offseason we brought on Tommy DeLago, and we focused a lot on improving as an organization, as a program, making sure that we came into 2022 in the best position possible because we knew how deep the field was going to be in Top Fuel . . . and it has proven to be just that. So it's been a fantastic year. We expected to be in this position but nonetheless humbled that we are here with only three races left.
“I think that we expected to be in this position coming into the season, but nonetheless, to actually be here in this position, I think sometimes I need to sit back and reflect and realize how far we've actually come as a program – because we are three races away from potentially winning the championship in NHRA's toughest category, in my opinion,” Ashley said. “So it is almost a pinch-me situation, but at the same time, we did expect to be here and we just love that we're in this situation. But I think the time for reflection is probably after the season is over. We are appreciative that we are where we are, but we need to focus because there's a lot of people behind us right now that are ready to jump and pounce on any opportunity. Any minute that door is open a little bit, they're going to try and squeeze their way in there. It is a position that we're appreciative to be in. We are only three races to go, 19 down. So really cool to be in this position after winning the Winternationals. Fast forward this far down the season. To be here is really exciting.”
If Ashley, just 27 years old and in only his fourth year in the elite Camping World Drag Racing Series, can rise to the top so quickly, is experience overrated?
“No, experience is not overrated. Experience is huge. It's crucial,” Ashley said. “All these teams are great. They're all fantastic, our team included. But we also do have a lot of experience. Believe it or not, our team has a lot of experience. [Crew chiefs] Mike Green, Tommy DeLago, they have championship-winning experience. We have guys up and down the list on the team that have championship experience. So it's definitely not overrated. It's a critical element.
“You look at a guy like Steve Torrence, who's won four championships, he's participated in the Countdown before. That experience is invaluable. It really is. And it's an important element to finding success, but it's not everything. You have to put everything together. You have to have the right culture. You have to have the right group,” he said.
And he said he relies on those more-experienced team members: “I lean on them a lot. Guys like Mike and Tommy and the rest of the team that have been there, done that, because there's just certain things that I haven't experienced or don't fully have an understanding of, just because I haven't been there, done that before. So they've been really, really valuable, a valuable tool, a valuable asset. And I think that probably the best thing that I can do is just sit there and listen and hear what they have to say about what it takes to be successful and what it takes to win championships. Even guys like Antron Brown, even guys like [Brown crew chiefs] Brian Corradi and Mark Oswald, [have been] kind enough to spend time with me and spend time with our team. We're fortunate to be able to work together with Antron's team to become better as a group and for both our teams to get better. So everybody collectively, as one big unit, is working together. And I think it's really important for me to be able to lean on those guys in our team. And it's something that I'm trying to fully take advantage of.”
Ashley said, “I think it takes time and it takes experience to find yourself in this situation. I don't have as much experience as a lot of other teams and a lot of other drivers.”
And the one tenet he relies on, “the one constant, the one thing I've always been taught,” keeps him grounded, he said: “You cannot ride that emotional roller coaster. When you race a six-race Countdown, when you race a 22-race season, there are going to be ups and downs. It's just racing. It's a part of being a team. It's a part of participating in a professional sport. So I think you go into it knowing and understanding that and then you just have to keep focusing on moving forward. So it is a fine line. There is a balance between having that sense of urgency and knowing that we need to continue to go rounds but not worrying about the past and just continuing to be the very best version of ourselves that we can be.”
The entire experience, which still is unfolding, has Ashley and Co. animated.
“Yeah, I'm very excited about it. Our whole team is excited about it. Obviously, we didn't have the kind of weekend that we expected or the kind of weekend that we wanted in St. Louis, but I thought that we had a really productive first two races of the Countdown,” Ashley said. “And had you asked me prior to the Countdown, ‘Would you like to be in the position that you're in right now going into Dallas, going into the Stampede of Speed? [which he won last year],’ of course we would have said, ‘Yeah, we love it.’ So, you know, we feel good about the position that we're in. It was a really good regular season. I think it's been a great Countdown for us. But now all bets are off. We have to finish strong over these last few races.”
He said he's inspired even by Funny Car veteran and multi-time champion Robert Hight. “Definitely seeing guys like Robert, who have been there, done that before, he's won multiple championships. They have a great team. They've won a lot of races. Seeing him do it absolutely gives a team like ours confidence that we can go in there and do the same thing. With that being said, we have that confidence. Mike Green and Tommy Delago, the entire team, they do a great job. They really do. And they know and they understand what it takes to win. So we have the utmost confidence going into every race, no matter what happens the previous race, that we can go in there and be successful.”
BIKERS ON A MISSION – A couple of drag-racing legacies have teamed to form their own Pro Stock Motorcycle operation, and they have a mission to do more than win races and titles.
Robert Brandt is the son of Hall of Fame mechanic Bob Brandt Sr., who was crew chief for Don “Snake” Prudhomme through the 1970s and ’80s. Multi-series champion Richard Gadson is the nephew of 11-time champion Ricky Gadson. Together they’re making their NHRA debut as Gadson Brandt Racing (GBR) in the 20-entry bike class this weekend here at Texas Motorplex.
As they actively seek sponsorship and marketing partnerships to run the final two races of this Camping World Drag Racing Series schedule, as well as the 2023 season, Brandt and Gadson want to raise awareness of suicide among military member and veterans.
Brandt started his motorcycle drag-racing career just a little more than a year ago in honor of his son, active Army Sgt. Riley C. Brandt, whom he lost to suicide in November 2020. Moreover, Brandt has started a non-profit organization, The Sgt. Riley C. Brandt Foundation, and the plan is for the foundation at each NHRA event to honor two families of deceased soldiers with recognition on the GBR Military Suicide Awareness bike and as guests for the race.
Brandt has competed aboard the Military Suicide Awareness drag bike in the NHDRO and ManCup series.
He said, “Nobody is more deserving and ready to make this move than Richard Gadson. And I am truly blessed for his belief in my mission to honor my son and soldiers who took their lives. GBR is racing for a mission, Military Suicide Awareness and Championships. Having Richard as our rider and tuner will help us with both.”
Gadson is a third-generation drag-bike racer and five-time national champion in XDA, NHDRO, SEMDRA, and ManCup competition.
They have reached this stage of the team development with the help of bike owner James Johnson, a 22-year Army veteran who rekindled his passion for the sport after he retired to manage his diagnosed PTSD. Johnson’s mentor back in the late 1980s and early ’90s was NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle racer Tom Duke, and Johnson stepped away from drag racing to pursue a military career.
"I’m so grateful for the opportunity that James Johnson and his JJR Suzuki is allowing us to debut at the Texas Motorplex. It's been a lifelong dream of mine to compete in the NHRA,” Gadson said. “Huge thanks to everyone who helped us get this far. I never knew how hard it was to field a Pro Stock Motorcycle. Much respect to the entire class.”
They are partnering with – but taking absolutely no money from – two nonprofits, Mission 22 and Stop Soldier Suicide.
Mission 22, dedicated to healing America’s veterans, offers treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress and Traumatic Brain Injury and all of the issues veterans are facing today. More information is available online at https://mission22.com/. Stop Soldier Suicide’s message is that “not all crises look the same. Stop Soldier Suicide is our promise to those who are facing it. Our struggles may be loud or silent, all-consuming or passing, during service or any time after, a moment or a lifetime. We have a relentless focus on results. We don't just say we support vets. We actually save lives. With your help, we can move even faster to drastically reduce veteran suicide rates.” The organization’s website is https://stopsoldiersuicide.org/.
Brandt, who spent his childhood at NHRA events alongside his father, said, “If I would have known about even one of these non-profits, maybe – just maybe – I could have heard something, seen something, in my son or been able to suggest these organizations to him for help other than the Army.
“I want to bring awareness and hope to help someone somewhere. After an overwhelming response to the bike at Rockingham in the ManCup Series and Indianapolis in the NHDRO, it was my goal to take this mission to the NHRA and build a Pro Stock Motorcycle team. With the help of Richard, we’ve been able to make that happen.”
Gadson said, “To team up with Robert to honor his son and other fallen soldiers on the bike with Stop Soldier Suicide and Mission22 is very special.”
The team is privately funded. No donations of any kind from Mission22 or Stop Soldier Suicide go towards team operations.
Gadson not only rides the GBR Military Suicide Awareness bike, but he also shares tuning duties with Michael Goñi, owner of Berkeley, N.J.-based Standard Cycle Company.
The team announced Friday that Anderson Toyota, of Lake Havasu City, Ariz., has signed on as an associate sponsor.
“Anderson Toyota stands behind Gadson Brandt Racing and their mission of military suicide awareness. We support not only our veterans but all men and women currently serving our country. Anderson Toyota would like to thank all the men and women who have made the sacrifice to keep our nation safe,” Andrea Foote, head of marketing and sponsorships at Anderson Toyota, said. “We are excited to join GBRacing as their first associate sponsor and hope to build a long-lasting future partnership.”
Anderson Toyota will be featured on the black, teal, and purple Suzuki this weekend and through the Nevada Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and the season-closing Auto Club Finals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.
“We are very excited to represent Anderson Toyota of lake Havasu City on our Military Suicide Awareness Pro Stock Motorcycle. Richard and I can’t thank Andrea Foote and everyone at Anderson Toyota enough for the belief in our mission as we start our NHRA career.”
FUNNY CAR TITLE NOT GUARANTEED TO HIGHT – Erica Enders leads her closest Pro Stock opponent, her Elite Performance teammate Aaron Stanfield, by 120 points, and could clinch her fifth championship at Las Vegas. Hers is the biggest margin among the four pro-class points leaders.
Robert Hight’s cushion is next-best, but he leads No. 2 Ron Capps by only 46 points in the Funny Car class. And both are keenly aware of that.
Already one of only three drivers (along with John Force and Capps) to have won as many as eight Funny Car races in a single season, Hight has a class-best 14 career Countdown event victories (including at the most recent race, at St. Louis).
“I love racing here in Texas. Billy Meyer has really put together something special with the Stampede of Speed week and the FallNationals [as] the finale. It’s the perfect way to celebrate the competition level we’ve seen all year long,” Hight said. “This AAA Texas Chevy Camaro team has been working hard, and we don’t plan to let up. It’s been a battle, and I don’t think that is going to change. We’ll need all the points we can get, and it all starts in qualifying.”
Hight has won here four times (2006, 2009, 2017, 2018), and he has been top qualifier seven times (2006, 2008, 2009, 2013, 2016, 2017, 2021). In his best venue for qualifying, he has led the field just five times. And Hight owns both ends of the Texas Motorplex record (3.828 seconds, 338.60 mph, from Oct. 15, 2017).
Capps, who won here last year, hasn’t been a slouch at Texas Motorplex. He also won in 1998, was runner-up three times (2011, 2016, 2017), and was No. 1 starter in 1997 and 2005.
And he’s hoping his 2021 pattern from St. Louis through Dallas is repeats itself.
“Things seem so eerily familiar to our 2021 season at this point. We had a tough loss last year in St. Louis and bounced back with the unbelievable win at the Motorplex right after. It just showed the championship moxie this team has, and here we are, going to the Motorplex once again after a gutting final-round loss to Robert Hight in St. Louis. Now, we’re headed to the FallNationals where we’re the defending champions, and with three races left and a little over two rounds separating us, we have a chance to make up ground once again,” Capps said.
"Obviously, we’ve got a stacked Top 10 of Funny Cars so you can’t just talk about Robert’s team. There are so many great teams that are capable of stepping up and winning at any given event.
He hesitated to name names, but he knows who the ones are to watch.
“I'm so careful, because you leave somebody's name out and it'll come back to bite you. So there's a lot of cars, obviously, whoever's third and fourth and fifth [Matt Hagan, John Force, and Bob Tasca III]. I don't know what the points are like for fifth [Tasca is 170 points off Hight’s pace]. I don't know who it is, but I've been in that position with three races to go, and all you're looking at is getting close enough when you leave Vegas to have a mathematical shot at Pomona, because magic has always happened at Pomona. So I don't want to leave anybody out,” Capps said.
“Certainly there's some great-running teams. JR Todd's team . . . there's teams like Wilkerson that we've seen just come alive. In January [I said] last year was the most unbelievably close top 10 or top 12 Funny Car battle during a season that I think we've ever seen. And then we just topped it this year. It's been crazy how it's progressively gotten closer and closer and better and better.
“Obviously, Robert Hight has been on fire. That team has shown that they can run great in every condition, but they have eight wins. Possibly they could have nine or 10 – you don't know. But there could be a chance of somebody having eight or more wins and not win a championship. And that's the side of history that I'm planning on being on. I've been on some awful close second places in this sport, in championships, in the past, and you never know it's going to come down to the wire. It’s part of this whole Countdown.
Capps’ plan to stop Hight is “you got to get them out of their comfort zone. And we did that for the final round [at St. Louis two weeks ago], and I failed a little bit, and we lost on a holeshot. It wasn't much. I mean, my light was a 50-something. He had a 41 [.041 of a second], and that's just the caliber of what we're going to see the next three races. So our car had lane choice going in. Guido and Medlen [crew chiefs Dean Antonelli and John Medlen], and our guys are just consistently throwing a great car out there. And we put them in that other lane, which I thought was going to give us the benefit of not having to push too hard. And I can stand back and look at that run over and over and what I could have done different, what I should have done different – and I'm not sure I could have done anything different. I went up there and tried my best, but we had the car performance-wise going through into the final and they stepped up, and that's what champions do.
“So we did that last year. We won Dallas, and I think I came off a weird holeshot loss to Force last year in St. Louis, and I could not wait for the Dallas race. And I think we ended up winning on two holeshots on Sunday in Dallas, maybe three. But it was one of those days I look back as just one of the epic days for us for a win, and we battle ourselves right back into it. You have to with any team [rock them from their comfort zone]. Don't leave out Hagan. Don't leave out Wilkerson. I mean, you go down the list of Bob Tasca – that team could step up. So you have to put a little bit of pressure on them or they're going to go up there and Jimmy Prock is going to say, ‘I can go run another 90 flat and be safe.’ You can't. You got to make them think you're going to run 85 and he's got to go run 85. And they're thinking the same thing about us and putting Guido in that position. So it's going to be a lot of fun for us drivers to have the best seat in the house. And these are what championships are built on, these great moments that you look back after the year is over.”
Hagan said that this weekend, “our mindset is no-holds-barred. We have to go in there and really swing for the fence. We have nothing to lose. Both Robert [Hight] and [Ron] Capps are good racers with good teams, so they’re going to have to struggle and we’re going to have to do well. We have to do well, no matter what. You don’t hope for someone to do bad. You just know you have to go out there and do all you can. We have to be super-aggressive and try to scoop up as many points as we can in qualifying.”
And everyone can agree that they never can count out 16-time champion John Force.
The career leader in victories at Texas Motorplex (seven: 1993, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2003, 2005 and in the discontinued spring race in 2000), Force has been No. 1 qualifier here 12 times, more than at any other track (except at Lucas Indianapolis Raceway Park, where he also has 12 top starts). He has been runner-up twice (2010, 2013).
Despite all that achievement, Force (the early qualifying leader Friday) said, “It’s tough out there, trying to keep up with these kids. But we’re doing it. This PEAK Chevy team has been working hard, giving me a consistent race car. I’m just trying to do my job behind the wheel. Halfway through the Countdown and we still have a shot at it. Just have to keep on plugging away at it. This weekend is sure to be a show, everything Billy Meyer has going on, the extra fanfare, and then the competition at its all-time high. It’s going to be exciting.”
Hagan is third, 103 points back. Force is No. 4, 114 points out of first. And Tasca has 170-point deficit and is fifth. No. 6 Alexis DeJoria and No. 7 JR Todd are two points apart, she 217 out of the lead and him 219.
Capps said the equally dangerous Tim Wilkerson, Cruz Pedregon, Jim Campbell, and Blake Alexander – all Countdown-qualified racers – have a chance to cause some commotion, as do non-Countdown drivers.
“Some people are in a hunt for a championship and some aren't. So there's a lot of that stuff that goes on. And I've said it time and time again, even when we weren't in a position to win a championship, that the cars that aren't in position to win the championship are the most dangerous,” Capps said.
“They're the ones from now on, right now, that are going to go out there and throw everything at it, and they're going to be testing for next year, and they're not afraid to be a little cautious and just go down the track to try to gain those points. They're going to go out there and you're going to see cars come alive,” he said. “So it happens every year, and I've been part of it myself when you get down in that last two or three races. So that's what we're probably going to see more than anything else. And if you can dodge those bullets here and there. And where qualifying ends up, luck of the draw type of thing, of who's going to run who at the end of the day, Countdown-wise, that's going to be a huge story. We've seen that happen a lot in the past.
“And when we get a chance with somebody right in the points with us, whether it's Hight or Hagan or Tasca or go down the list, we're going to have to take care of the business ourselves,” Capps said, “and we didn't do it in St. Louis. I didn't do it. I lost in the holeshot, and I got to be a little better. So I think that's going to be the story, the storyline part probably more than anything else.”
Those non-contenders will be hungry for a share of the spotlight, he said.
“As somebody not into it, I can tell you you're tired of seeing, hearing, watching the other drivers get ink in National Dragster, storylines and interviews on Fox, that type of thing. It gets old, and you're like, ‘OK, well, let's make some noise ourselves. Let's go out there and win some rounds and knock people out of the championship.’ That's what the mindset was for us when we were in that position. I'm sure it is for a lot of the teams and again, testing a little bit next year. I think these other teams are going to be the most dangerous, for sure,” Capps said. “I mean, look, we put ourselves in a position to win a championship, but Alexis’s team knocked out Hagan, so you're going to see a lot of those things come up in these last few races, and you just don't want to be on the other side of that. And hopefully the misfortune will happen with the people and points around us and we can take advantage of it.”
VICTORY, BABY! – This annual NHRA visit to Texas Motorplex holds a special memory for Scrappers Racing crew chief Rob Flynn.
Twenty-six years ago, in 1996, Flynn was the crew chief for Whit Bazemore’s Smokin’ Joe’s Ford Mustang Funny Car. But Bazemore was recuperating in a Winston-Salem, N.C., hospital from a broken leg sustained in a motorcycle accident. Dale Pulde, who had mentored Bazemore, was chosen to substitute behind the wheel. Pulde won the Chief Auto Parts Nationals here at Ennis.
While that’s remarkable enough, the October 13 victory had extra sparkle. It came five days after daughter Stacy was born. The car carried a decal on the hood that declared, “Congratulations, Rob. It’s a girl!!!”
That started a domino effect for Flynn when it comes to family additions.
Daughter Stacy grew up and married Caleb Cox, general manager of Cruz Pedregon Racing. This February, she and Caleb became first-time parents, welcoming son Wesley Wayne Cox February 28 – the day after “Grandpa Rob” Flynn tuned Mike Salinas to a Top Fuel victory.
“We were watching the race from the hospital,” Caleb Cox said.
What’s more, the Coxes brought Wesley to his first NHRA national event, the April 29-May 1 Circle K Four-Wide Nationals. Flynn and Salinas won that race, too.
Incidentally, crew members for Flynn in 1996 were Dickie Venables and Chris Cunningham, who today are Funny Car crew chiefs duking it out in the Countdown with drivers Matt Hagan and Robert Hight, respectively. Also on the crew was Kurt Elliott, tuner for Countdown contender and Salinas rival Shawn Langdon.
FUN FOLLOWS ANTONELLI – Earlier this week, a LinkedIn message popped up that urged friends of Dean “Guido” Antonelli, crew chief for Ron Capps’ NAPA Auto Care Toyota Funny Car, to congratulate him for his new position as the team’s “Coordinator of Fun.”
Curiously, Capps knew nothing of it at first: “I don’t know. Maybe there’s something I don't know about. Obviously we have fun, and I think the success we've had is you walk in our pitarea and there's good rock and roll playing. The crew's loose. They're having fun, and they put that car consistently together every time, flawlessly for Guido and [co-crew chief John] Medlen. I don't know what the inside joke is there. I'll probably get a note [about it now], but we do have a good time.”
Antonelli was a bit surprised himself to learn that it caught the attention of Competition Plus, and he downplayed it as “not really that cool of a story.” It turns out that he “realized that when I changed my work status last year to working at RCM [Ron Capps Motorsports], I never updated the email from DSR [Don Schumacher Racing] to current. So when I did that the other day, I saw it had a field for ‘position.’ I thought about how much fun I am having this year, with this owner, and the people on this team, racing and doing it as a career. So it must be that I am a ‘coordinator of fun.’ Not always – losing sucks. But in the scope of life, we live a dream.
“Looking back,” he said, “I grew up in racing. My dad raced my whole childhood. With a 10-year hiatus from [racing between ages] 18 to 28, I worked in the manufacturing / engineering world. When I came back to racing, it was at [John] Force’s at the end of ’94 – a one-car team then – and worked there 22 years. Wouldn’t trade that for anything. Then five years at DSR. Same thing: wouldn’t trade that for anything. Was mentored by absolutely the most brilliant people in racing. Met my wife [Kelly Antonelli, currently the vice-president of team operations at Tony Stewart Racing]. To me, I’ve been the Coordinator of Fun since 1994.”
Capps said, “We always like to have fun. I've had great crew chiefs that are bad-ass racers. You go back to Roland [Leong], and Ace [Ed McCulloch], and then [Dale] Armstrong and guys who have been around like that. Then you fast-forward to [Rahn] Tobler and now Guido. We like to race hard. We work hard, but we enjoy ourselves - good wine and just hanging out.”
AT HOME WITH HIS PEOPLE - Tony Schumacher has his name throughout the NHRA history books, but one entry is more for perseverance than performance – and Texas Motorplex plays a role in it.
The SCAG Power Equipment Dragster driver for Maynard Family Racing is tied with fellow Top Fuel racer Clay Millican for fourth on the list of competitors with the most final rounds before a first victory.
Schumacher had advanced to eight final rounds. And in his ninth, he finally closed the deal against Scott Kalitta here at Ennis in 1999 on his way to the first of his Top Fuel-best eight championships and 86 victories. Today Schumacher is the most successful Top Fuel racer at the Motorplex, with six victories (1999, 2004, 2005, 2009, 2010, 2014). He also was runner-up here to JR Todd in 2008 and was No. 1 qualifier in three non-winning visits (2003, 2006, 2011).
Born in California, reared in Illinois, educated in Wisconsin, Schumacher is at home in Texas. And the previous time the Austin resident raced here, in 2020, he was honored as a Texas Motorplex Legend - the second person (after one-time teammate Cory McClenathan) to receive the award, which owner Billy Meyer and daughter Christie Meyer Johnson introduced in 2019.
“The Texas Motorplex will always be a special place for me. It was where I got my first win,” Schumacher said. “I had gone to so many finals that year, in ’99, and to go out and win that race, and then go on to win the championship, it’ll always have a special place in my heart. Not only is that racetrack great, but Christie Meyer Johnson and Billy Meyer, and that whole family, they’re great people. They go to our church. It’s just awesome. I don’t get too jacked up about some tracks, but with the Motorplex, I do. It was literally the beginning of the drag racing ‘super stadium’ era.
“I love racing in Dallas. Texas is ‘my people,’ and I love going and racing in front of that crowd, because they have a good time. We’ve got a bunch of friends coming out, we’re staying in a motorhome this weekend,” he said.
“Being named a Legend of Texas Motorplex the last time I raced there was a huge honor. I feel very proud of that. They can select anyone, and it was an honor that they chose me. That was the last time I raced in Ennis, so it’s just a track that has a lot of good memories for me.”
This time it’s his team owners’ turn to receive honors. Early Friday, Joe and Cathi Maynard were recognized at the Austin Peay State University Naming Celebration of the Joe and Cathi Maynard Family Athletics Complex at Fortera Stadium at Clarksville, Tenn. Named Austin Peay's 2020 Philanthropists of the Year, the Clarksville residents have given generously to the university since 2017, including improvements to the baseball field – now named Joe Maynard Field – and the softball park – known as Cathi Maynard Park.
Cathi Maynard, who served in the U.S. Army as an MP, was a softball and volleyball player in the service. Retired Army Sergeant and engineer Joe Maynard was “all-Europe in golf and bowling,” and participating in sports brought them together, they said.
This is the final race this season that Schumacher’s dragster will carry the SCAG livery. The familiar orange SCAG paint scheme will be on the car as the primary sponsor for the next three seasons.
“We have a huge SCAG crowd coming out this weekend – it’s getting bigger every race,” Schumacher said. “Very much looking forward to next year. The car is getting better and better with the performance, and right now, we’re at the place we needed to be in at the beginning of the year. It’s hard when you start a new team. No one really knows each other – new people, new parts and pieces – but as you start to get the performance, it feels good. Obviously, we’ve won a race this year [in late July, at Seattle], but we’d love to win one in the SCAG colors, and this is our last opportunity to do that this season. That would be a big accomplishment for us.”
THE STORY ON CORY - Top Fuel racer Cory McClenathan, the first Texas Motorplex Legend, had planned to compete this weekend for close friend Dexter Tuttle in the Nordic Boats / RevChem Dragster. However, he withdrew from competition because of health-related reasons.
McClenathan also pulled out of last weekend’s Funny Car Chaos season finale at Texas Motorplex (which kicked off this second Stampede of Speed) because of severe dehydration. That caused him some stomach issues that hospitalized him briefly at Methodist Mansfield Medical Center and left him unable to race Rick Akers’ Nostalgia Funny Car. McClenathan returned home to California, still intending to drive at the FallNationals. Ultimately, he decided he wasn’t ready come back.
So Metroplex native Kebin Kinsley is driving the car this weekend, although McClenathan still does plan to run Akers’ Nostalgia Funny Car at the California Hot Rod Reunion at Bakersfield and in exhibition passes at the NHRA Nevada Nationals at Las Vegas in two weeks.
Kinsley, who last drove a dragster in competition in 2020, said Tuttle called him Wednesday: “I was at the shop, working on the mill, and I saw Dexter was calling me. I figured he was wanting me to come help him work on the car this weekend.” He said he told Tuttle, “Heck yeah!!!” and said, “I needed to make a pass. My license is up in December. So this works out really well. You’ve got to make a pass every couple of years.”
He did reset the track record here in March 2021 in a Fuel Altered during a Funny Car Chaos race. “Tim Wilkerson and I were battling back and forth,” he said. “He got the E.T. record, and I got the mile-an-hour record,” Kinsley said.
With the group he has to work with this weekend, Kinsley said, “I feel very blessed to get in the car. We’ve got Aaron Brooks and Tony Shortall, two of the best in the business. And Dexter’s got the money to do it right. I’ve been fortunate that Cory brought Rev Chem and Nordic Boats to the table [as sponsors]. I get the benefit, get to go ride it. So I’m excited, and I’m going to go give it a whirl.”
McClenathan said of his decision, “I know this is the right decision when I don’t feel 100 percent and would never ignore this fact and possibly endanger my fellow competitors. I would like to thank Josh Peterson [Vice-President of Racing Administration] and NHRA for working with me as I attempted to race this weekend."
McClenathan also expressed thanks and best wishes to Tuttle for this weekend and said he was was looking forward to working with tuner Aaron Brooks for the first time in all the years they have known each other and wished him and fellow tuner Tony Shortall luck and success.
McClenathan’s longtime sponsors Nordic Boats and RevChem remained on the dragster, along with Lucas Oil, FatHeadz Eyewear, and SignPros.
“I talked to him a little while ago,” Kinsley said minutes before getting into his car for that first-session pass. “He had a rough day yesterday [Thursday] but he’s feeling a lot better today. He might have gotten food poisoning. That’s what the doctor said the other day.”
Kinsley recently won the Southern Drag Boat Association championship and set the speed record at 250 miles an hour – 269 miles an hour at 1,000 feet (although the course is just 875 feet) – at San Angelo, Texas. “It was truckin’,” he said.
Unfortunately, the dragster wasn’t early Friday. Kinsley did his burnout, and a mechanical problem forced him to take it all the way down the racetrack without backing up, staging it, and making a proper run.
GOING FOR CALM, FOCUSED – Steve Torrence, Top Fuel’s four-time and reigning champion, said at the recent U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis, “It’s not a good thing, but I’m a driver that is very dependent on confidence in my ride. I’ve trended to getting better to not being that way and being a little more solid when I need to be. But when the car’s doing well and the car’s running well, I drive really well.
“I’ve learned a lot this year, going through not being as dominant, not winning every other race or not winning every fourth race or whatever it is,” he said. “You learn to stay focused and be on your game. There’s been some races this year that I should’ve won but I went up there [to the starting line and] I didn’t do my job because I was off in left field, thinkin’ why the car’s not good.”
Torrence has begun to embrace a more balanced approach, understanding that drag-racing success depends on driver, team, and car all in synch.
“Well, I can only rely on myself to do the job of having a good reaction time, and you have to count on your car to get you through,” he said. “And I think that any driver will tell you that. And you got to count on your team. So, in no kind of way am I the guy that wins these championships. I can be the guy that loses them. But you just got to do the best you can and go up there and stay calm and stay focused.”
Here at this race in 2017, Torrence was starting to cash in on an eight-victory season – a season in which he won one-third of the 24 races. But in the second round of this race at Ennis, Texas, against Richie Crampton (who, ironically, built Torrence’s car), Torrence won but rode out a nasty crash that literally tore his car – his trusty favorite – apart. He brought out a back-up car and never quite adjusted to it. Brittany Force went on in that race and the final two that followed to pull off a championship run.
However, Torrence didn’t blame that tendency to tie his fortune to his car on his 2017 results that denied him the chance to be a five-time champion already.
“In 2017, I wasn't the driver that I am today, as far as mental fortitude and the ability to just deal with situations and get through them,” Torrence said. “And unless you've been in those situations and dealt with it mentally, you're not prepared for it. We had a wreck. It took the primary car that we had out of play. We had a car that we didn't have a whole lot of information and data with, so we've prepared differently since then.
“And then, also mentally,” he said, “I had a difficult time overcoming just the whole process of having a wreck. You're not scared to drive one of these things, or we wouldn't do it, but it's kind of like touching that electric fence 10 times in a row, and the final time you touch it, it shocks you. And so there was a little bit of reservation that I had and hesitations that I had in driving the car that ultimately probably cost us that championship and just being late and not driving the car with the same tenacity that I had before the wreck.”
As for this season, he said, “We'll do the best we can do, and we'll go out there and throw everything we have at it and give us the best chance to try to win the championship, and that's all we can do.”
His victory at St. Louis, he said, reinforced the notion that he “really thought that we could overcome the obstacle of getting back into the chase. I didn't think it would happen as quickly as it did, being able to be right back in the middle of it and almost take over the points lead in one race. But we are the four-time chance we have dominated the last five years. And so, to say that we weren't in contention, I think that was just selling us a little bit short. And so, admittedly, we had spent the majority of the year working on things to try to make the car better. It took us a little bit longer than what we wanted and what we anticipated to get it there, but I think it's there now and we're going to keep throwing at it as hard as we can.
“There's three races left, and there's five or six or seven cars that are right in the thick of everything, and it's going to be the battle to try to get that championship won. So we're going to stay focused,” Torrence said. “At the end of the day, we can only do what we do, and you got to have some luck and you've got to have some things like what happened in St. Louis go your way to keep that momentum going. And that's what we're working towards.
“I don't think we're any weaker than we've ever been. And I spoke to Toyota about this before we even went down this road [an alliance with the automaker]. We were going to make some changes. We were going to try to evolve our tune-up and try to evolve our race team a little bit,” he said. “And it has taken time, but when you do the same thing for so long and you don't change, you don't evolve, you'll get left behind. And that's where we've spent the majority of the year, majority of the season trying to get to.”
He said, “I don't think we're weak. I don't think we're any less strong than what we were. And at this point, I would say we may be stronger than we've ever been. We just haven't shown it at this point. Last year, I think I had won nine or 10 races. So we just need to stay focused, keep our eye on the ball and go. This is three races left to win the championship, and we're in familiar territory. We just need to go out and execute. This is nothing more than winning rounds or winning races and trying to do our job.”