PROCK’S CONFIDENCE RESTORED WITH TOP FUEL VICTORY IN FINAL AT POMONA  - Top Fuel’s Austin Prock won the first race of the 2022 NHRA Countdown to the Championship in September at Reading, Pa., and he won the last one of the Countdown Sunday evening at Pomona, Calif. 

But what happened before the Countdown and occasionally in between his playoff victories was gnawing at him, making him feel like he was “the weak link of John Force Racing.” 

The driver of the Montana Brand / Rocky Mountain Twist Dragster saw Brittany Force shattering elapsed-time and speed records at just about every stop on the Camping World Drag Racing Series tour. Robert Hight – with Prock’s father, Jimmy, doing the tuning – was leading the Funny Car points for most of the season. Boss John Force, even at age 73, was a top-five driver with a legitimate shot at a 17th title. 

“Everybody else was succeeding, and we just couldn't get the job done,” Prock said. 

But in the NHRA Finals, he used a 3.641-second, 336.23-mph pass on the 1,000-foot Auto Club Raceway course to defeat series and event runner-up Antron Brown’s 3.701, 320.74. And as he climbed and stood atop the rear wing of his dragster, Prock knew he was pulling his weight in the John Force Racing organization. 

Instead of being what he characterized as “the laughingstock,” Prock turned out to be far more successful than he though. He capped his rather erratic season with his career-best E.T. in the final round to finish third in the final standings, 82 points behind Force and just 20 points behind Brown. Prock ended up four points ahead of No. 4 Justin Ashley, who was Force’s closest challenger heading into the season finale. 

Although the journey was a distressing one for Prock, he said he would glean some positives from it all. 

“You know what? I think it just showed determination,” he said. “Even when we were beat up, we were still striving to get that success we needed, and it was tough. I dream about driving this thing, and through the middle of the season, I wasn't even enjoying being at the track, just because it was painful. And it honestly got to a point where it started to be scary, because we were blowing that thing up left and right. And I'm like, ‘All it takes is one bad chunk of metal to cut a tire and you're just along for the ride.’ We got it all straightened out and really enjoyed the last half of the season. So, I just think it teaches you just to stay level-headed, don't get too high, don't get too low. And my dad has taught me that my whole life. But when everything's on the line and you're trying to do good for your sponsors and your team – and in my case, I've lost my ride before – so all those things start playing in your head. And it just eats at you. And you can't let it get to you. Just got to go up there, do the best you can, and see how your cards fall.” 

They fell right in line, maybe more than he had hoped they would, considering some of the emotions he experienced. 

By the U.S. Nationals, Prock was just starting to heal from an injured hand – a result of being so frustrated at Topeka that he got out of his car and punched it. 

“I live, eat, and breathe this stuff. And I was fed up,” he said. “We weren't doing a good job, and it was wearing on me and I exploded. You know, it wasn't even so much that we lost that round. It was the fact that how much money we were spending. It ain't cheap to blow one of these things up. It ain’t even cheap to drag it up there, let alone level it top to bottom. And I think that's what was getting to me the most. It took the brain trust to get everything back in line.” 

And he could become depressed if he thought about how he might have made the championship battle an all-John Force Racing affair if he had gotten a better run at the Countdown and kept his momentum going after the Reading race. 

He said, “We could have rolled in here like eighth or ninth, probably, in the Countdown and probably won this deal.” He began the playoffs in 11th place, a bit chagrined he got into the chase by the NHRA’s ”mercy rule” that allows non-top-10 drivers to participate if they attend every race and make at least two qualifying passes. It wasn’t what he envisioned for himself. He had higher standards. 

“So it just speaks volumes for how hard everybody was working and when we fixed it, they knew we were here,” Prock said. “I enjoyed this Countdown so much. It was so much fun going rounds. 

“Racing can be a real pain sometimes when you're struggling, especially when you live it like this. It runs your life. You know your mood is down even when you're away from the racetrack, when you're struggling, at least for me,” he said. “So I just had a blast in this Countdown, going rounds. Everybody's morale was up, the team did a great job, nobody missed a beat. And we went from being the laughingstock essentially, to the car to beat pretty much overnight with three or four test runs in Indy. So everybody showed up when we had to.” 

Veteran tuner Rahn Tobler, co-crew chief with Joe Barlam, has retired a of this race, and Prock said, “He’s going out on top in Top Fuel. 

“I'm so happy for Rahn Tobler. I've had a blast working with him this year. He's an absolute legend in the sport, and to go out on his last race like he did tonight speaks volumes for what he's done for the sport,” Prock said. “So that was the quickest run he's ever made in history, and it was the last one, too. And it was the semifinals, I just heard, were the quickest side-by-side run ever. So I'm just really proud of Rahn. I've had so much fun racing with him this year. I still get butterflies when I watch him roll me into the beams, just because he's accomplished so much in the sport and he believes in me to drive his race car. Came out of retirement to come work with me, and that means a lot to me, gives me a lot of confidence. And I'm glad we went out on top with him.” Susan Wade


No, Pedregon has had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year, for anyone familiar with classic children’s literature. In that children’s tale of a similar name about Alexander and his bad day, the main character learns that bad things are going to happen, but when you’re surrounded by people that support you, you can still achieve your dreams.

That was Pedregon’s year in a nutshell, as the two-time world champion bounced back from a season of disappointments with one of his finest performances in years, producing a series of career-best runs en route to a win Sunday at the Auto Club NHRA Finals.

“I wanted to finish on a high note for all of the people that supported our team this year,” Pedregon said. “I was kind of embarrassed by how we’ve done this year. We really underachieved and never got on track. We never got in any kind of groove until this weekend.

“I’ve won some big races in my career. I won Indy three times. This race probably tops them all just considering where we came from and where we were today. This car is as good as the great McDonald’s ‘92 car that dethroned the great John Force. This is the best race car I have ever driven by a longshot. This weekend has just been surreal to me.”

Pedregon capped perhaps his most complete weekend ever with a run for the ages against newly crowned Funny Car champion Ron Capps.

Capps, who clinched the title when he staged the car in the final round, had his best run of eliminations, but could not match Pedregon who produced a career-best elapsed time and speed in earning his 39th career win and his first in more than a year at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.

Pedregon drove his Snap-on Tools Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat to a 3.839-second pass at 335.65 mph in collecting the win. Capps, who secured his second consecutive championship and third overall, had a 3.850 at 333.16 mph in the runner-up effort.

“It was very unique to go into the final round against a guy that is competing for a championship as long as he didn’t create a foul that would deduct points,” Pedregon said. “I did think about that. Before I put my helmet on, just for a second, I thought about it, but I realized I just need to run my own race and not get caught up in what he can and can’t do.

“On race day drivers cheat the light a little bit and try to enhance their reaction time. I rolled in a little bit against Capps because he is such a good driver and I didn’t want him to wipe the floor with me. For it to run an 83, and if you do the math it probably ran an 82, is pretty awesome in the final. I give everyone on this team credit. The guys knew they were up against a formidable opponent. That NAPA car is a good car and they were doing all they could to get that win.”

Capps came into the NHRA Finals second in the championship standings, more than two rounds behind Robert Hight. After two days of jockeying for position and bonus points during qualifying, including going from outside the field to No. 1 on Saturday, Capps was able to narrow that gap to less than two rounds entering eliminations on Sunday.

And when fellow championship contender Matt Hagan lost in round one to Steven Densham, and Hight lost in round two to Bob Tasca, it opened the door for Capps to earn a third career championship. When he staged the car and made a clean run in the final, it was finally decided in his favor.

“The Countdown was crazy. I feel so bad for Robert Hight. He’s such a great champion and for that team to win eight races and not win a championship, that is crazy. It just tells you the competition we have out here,” Capps said. “You talk about a rollercoaster of emotions to go from not getting any points, and even losing some, to waking up Saturday morning and Guido telling everybody it is going to be alright. And then to throw down low ET and gain all the points and put it under two rounds was huge.”

Capps also had championships in 2016 and 2021, but this year was extra special as it was his first as a team owner after many years with Don Schumacher Racing.

“I just didn’t think this was going to happen,” Capps said. “To win it and then go as a team owner as the number one car and beat that AAA car, who has had phenomenal success here at this track, it hasn’t even sunk in yet. So many people believed in us. It blows my mind.”

Pedregon, who advanced past the second round for only the second time this year, reached his first final round of the year with wins over Jason Rupert, John Force and Alexis DeJoria.

Rupert and Force both ran into trouble during their runs, Force in particular as he suffered a catastrophic failure when his engine let go, while DeJoria gave Pedregon a great race in the semifinals. But following four-consecutive 3.84-second passes in qualifying and three more tremendous runs on Sunday, Pedregon was easily able to advance to the final round. Pedregon had passes of 3.862, 3.876 and 3.864 during eliminations.

Pedregon places much of Sunday’s result on the decision to bring former crew chief Lee Beard back to the team to act in a consulting role alongside current crew chief John Collins. That decision, along with a complete overhaul of the motor program, led to a race for the ages for the veteran racer.

“This says a lot about this team. We added Lee to the team and I want to give J.C. and the team that I had that has been grinding with me for two years credit because what Lee brought to the table fit what we were already doing,” Pedregon said. “It was a decision we made back in Reading. I decided I wanted to change course and I called J.C. and said we need to change our program completely. To his credit, he was very receptive. We welcomed Lee with open arms. By Dallas we switched to the six-disc and then made a lot of little changes to the engine program.

“I am even amazed at how quick it came together because that normally doesn't happen. We are racing guys out here like Jimmy Prock and Guido that have been running at the top of the game for years and came out here and pretty much dominated. The four consecutive 3.84s were unprecedented, but I knew if we screwed this up and don’t win we are going to look like fools. The fact that we were able to close the deal today says something.”

Capps, behind the wheel of his NAPA Auto Parts Toyota GR Supra Funny Car, had wins over Jeff Arend, Tim WIlkerson and Bob Tasca.

Pedregon now enters the offseason riding the high of a stellar season finale. And while he would certainly love to continue this momentum at another race or two, he has bigger plans for where this team can go in 2023.

“Considering the year that we’ve had and the changes that we’ve made, I just think it was a perfect storm bringing in Lee and making those changes,” Pedregon said. “Sometimes the chips just fall the right way. What we had before was competitive, solid, but it wasn’t a difference maker. What we have now, there is another hen in the hen house for sure.

“I’m going to go into the offseason and try to build our inventory up and come out here next year and compete for a championship. I really do have a desire and I think I am young enough and still have the skillset to maybe win a third championship. That would put my career where I would like it to be.” Larry Crum

FITTING FINALE: ANDERSON BESTS ENDERS IN CLASSIC PRO STOCK SHOWDOWN AT AUTO CLUB RACEWAY - It is rare to know that you are witnessing history in the moment. Oftentimes, we don’t fully comprehend what a season, a race, or a single run will mean in the grand scheme of the history of the sport until years later.

But Sunday’s showdown between Greg Anderson and Erica Enders had all of the classic markers of a matchup for the ages. Between them, 10 championships. 144 Pro Stock race wins. Four consecutive titles. So it was only fitting that two of the best to ever strap into a racecar closed out the 2022 season in style with another classic matchup in their rivalry at the Auto Club NHRA Finals.

Anderson, fresh off of his historic 100th race win just two months ago, provided a fitting farewell to KB Racing team owner Ken Black who announced earlier in the weekend that he was stepping away from the sport. And he did just that with a holeshot victory over his chief rival to give Anderson the 101st victory of his career.

“It has been an emotional weekend for me. It’s been 20 years of glory to be honest with you. It’s been a hell of a ride with Ken and Judy and the entire Black family,” Anderson said. “They’ve made all my hopes and dreams and fantasies come true. I never dreamt in my life that I could have achieved anything like this, and I couldn’t have without Ken Black. He absolutely made it happen and he was my lottery ticket.

“We had 20 great years together and I loved the man and the family. He has been like a second father to me. So coming down to Pomona, and we’re not going to win a world championship this year, so really the only way that I can possibly even give him a small thank you for all those years is to find a way to win the last race that he attends as a team owner.”

In the final round at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, Anderson had a tremendous .020 light and cruised to a 6.516-second lap at 210.31 mph to earn his second Wally trophy of the year in his HendrickCars.com Chevrolet Camaro. His other win came at the prestigious U.S. Nationals in September.

Enders, meanwhile, had a quicker 6.515 at 210.01 mph in her Elite Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro, but had to settle for the runner-up position after an uncharacteristically sleepy .061 reaction time. It was Enders’ 13th final round of the season after clinching her fifth career championship two weeks ago in Las Vegas.

“All the cards fell right today. I felt good as a driver, I had a good weekend of driving and my racecar was fast. It came down to the best way I could have written a story, just like back at Indy. I think these two wins, that Indy win earlier this year where I got number 100 and this one right here to give Ken Black his final trophy, are probably my two biggest wins,” Anderson said. “And beating Erica in the finals, that is always fantastic. I love racing here at Pomona. I’ve been here a lot of times and I’ve made the final a lot of times, but when I go out there and stand on that starting line when I’m not in the final, that’s when I realize how cool it is to race in the final round at Pomona at the World Finals. There’s nothing cooler than what we do when the sun goes down and it gets dark out there for the final round. That’s the coolest time of year and I thought all day, ‘I hope I can get there and experience that one more time.’ And I did and I made it pay off somehow.”

Anderson had a great weekend all the way around qualifying second and collecting wins over Chris McGaha, Bo Butner and Fernando Cuadra. Anderson had a close race with McGaha in round one - a 6.523 to a 6.566 - before suffering a bit of a scare in the second round.

After sending Butner home with a 6.537 at 209.95 mph, Anderson’s chutes deployed late and didn’t fully blossom as he just got his machine stopped short of the sandtrap at the top end.

In round three Cuadra lit the red light, moving Anderson into the finals for the fifth time this season.

Anderson was especially proud of his reaction times throughout the day and attributes his success on the tree to the motivation of getting his team owner one last race win.

“It is almost like I need some sort of extra motivation. I need more on the line. I need it to be more pressure,” Anderson said. “Just like Indy, just like when we got number 100, and just like here; there was more on the line. That meant everything to me, to find a way to give Ken that trophy.

“I’ve done this a long time. I can remember back when I started out racing and I was a young dude who would go eat chocolate bars and I’d drink Coca-Cola and every kind of caffeine you could get before going up to the starting line. As the years have gone by, I don’t do that anymore. I guess I need a new way to get my heart started. Ken did that for me this weekend and you see the results.”

Enders, who earned her third championship in four years this season - with Anderon’s 2021 title splitting those wins - had wins over Mason McGaha, Troy Coughlin Jr. and Aaron Stanfield to reach the final round. Enders amassed 10 wins this season and nearly led the championship end-to-end.

“The way they responded after last year was incredible. What an offseason they had,” Anderson said. “That is what I need to do this year. I’ve got all the pieces in place to make that happen. I’ve got a whole lot of new supporters and I’ve got a new attitude and now you add this. We’ve got four months to cherish this win and then it is back to work.

“Right now I’m going to forget about the fact that we didn’t win the world championship. We won the last race of the year and it was the coolest way to win it. We beat the world champ in the final on a holeshot.”

Wasting little time, Anderson is already talking plans for next year as he and crew chief Rob Downing prepare to take over the KB Racing program with help from others that he is not yet ready to name. Until then, Anderson will get to work preparing the team for a run at the dominant Elite Motorsports team, which finished the year with the top three drivers in the championship standings.

“I’m excited about the future. It’s chapter three for me. Chapter one was Warren Johnson. Chapter two was Ken Black. And now it is chapter three, and I’m very excited about it,” Anderson said. “It’s absolutely going to be everything that we’ve put in place so far going to make this KB Racing team a stronger team in the future. Whether that involves Greg Anderson driving for years down the road or not. This is going to shore up all the shortfalls we have and basically shore up our future and make sure this KB Racing team is out here forever.” Larry Crum

ANGIE SMITH PUTS ICING ON CAKE WITH BIKE VICTORY AT NHRA FINALS - Pro Stock Motorcycle racer Angie Smith said she and her husband, Matt Smith, “win together and we lose together.” 

They literally won together Sunday at the NHRA Finals at Pomona, Calif. – no real losing at Auto Club Raceway for the King, N.C., couple. She won the event to complete what she called a “win-win,” and he completed his quest for a sixth series championship that put him in an elite circle of the best in class history.

It was a repeat of 2020, when Matt Smith won the title and Angie Smith won the event, when the Finals took place at Las Vegas. 

“For him to win the championship, me to win the race, we're going to have a party, for sure, when we go home. It’s tough out here for Pro Stock Motorcycle. All these classes are tough, but it's going to be epic,” the Denso EBR racer said. 

In the final round, Angie Smith defeated Joey Gladstone, who had eliminated her husband in the semifinal. She clocked a 6.749-second elapsed time on the quarter-mile at 199.55 mph that beat his 6.739, 199.67 by .0021 of a second, or about seven inches. 

Winning her third career trophy, she said, was “just a relief. We had done really well, but we hadn’t put the icing on the cake. I wanted so bad to win a race. But this Denso bike is set on mean.” 

She spent some of her day reassuring her normally confident husband as he tried to match former mentor Dave Schultz and fierce rival Andrew Hines for championship No. 6.

“This guy never gets nervous,” she said, nodding to Matt Smith, “and he was nervous for the sixth one. I just kept telling him, ‘It's going to be all right. It's going to be all right. Just go do what you know to do, what you've done five other times.’ I just needed to go out there and qualify well and just turn on win lights. 

“I think my goal in qualifying was just to go out there and make straight runs. And every round we just started creeping up on, we would go faster and faster and faster. So I knew I had a good bike going into today,” Angie Smith said. 

Looking back at her round-wins Sunday, she said, “Jerry Savoie has been a thorn in my side all year, and I got the win against him - and then Steve Johnson also. I mean, everybody that we raced today are very, very tough competitors when you have 16 bikes that show up and as strong as all the 16 bikes are. 

“So, turned on the win light against Jerry. Steve Johnson actually broke, but I knew I had to go out there and make a decent run, and so I had a single. But when I left the line, the bike shook pretty hard in low gear. So I told [Matt] when we got back [to the pits], I was like, ‘The bike shook pretty hard in low gear.’ So he looked at all the data and everything and made a tune-up call,” she said. 

“And I remember the last thing that he said to me and the last thing that my crew guy said to me. They both said, ‘You got this. Go do your job.’ And it took all of that, because I did my job and I won it on a holeshot,” Angie Smith said. “And I think I would rather win races on a holeshot than anything. I mean, it's nice to outrun people, but winning on a hole shot is pretty epic.” 

She said she was determined to cut a strong light when she faced Gladstone, someone she called “one of the best leavers in the class.” She said, “I was just like, ‘I just got to go up there and I was going to be fine if I went .020 [of a second, not far from a perfect .000].’ If I lost and I was .020 on the tree, then it wasn't meant to be. And I was .017 on the tree. And to win it on a holeshot, and for me to leave on him, that was awesome.” 

Angie Smith posted a third-place finish in the final standings, 91 points behind her husband. Gladstone’s breakout season ended with him landing in the No. 2 spot. Susan Wade



CAPPS FIRES HIS SHOT - Fans hungry for a championship battle in the Funny Car category this weekend at the Auto Club NHRA Finals have so far not been disappointed.

Each of the top three drivers in the class have experienced extreme highs and lows through two days of competition. And if Friday was an appetizer and Saturday the main course, the dessert will come on Sunday.

At the head of the table entering Sunday is defending class champion Ron Capps, who went from outside the field to No. 1 on the ladder with a head-turning 3.837-second pass at 337.33 mph, a new track speed record at historic Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.

The lead makes up the ground he lost on Friday as he now controls his destiny with a potential championship-deciding matchup in the semifinals on race day.

“We started the season as the No. 1 qualifier at the Winternationals, which is crazy as a new owner. I thought, ‘How much better can it get?’ And we go on to win five races and come in here and get the pole again at the end,” Capps said. “This is what I talk about when you get into a racecar like this and you wish you could make those runs at those big moments. But when you actually have the capability and the tools and obviously the sponsors with NAPA and Toyota, and then you have the people, you strap in and say to yourself, ‘Not only do I wish I can. Not only do I feel like we can, but I know we can throw down with the best.’”

Capps entered the final day of qualifying a shocking 16th on the charts, and was briefly bumped outside the field by Steven Densham during Q3. But in typical Capps fashion, with the backing of crew chiefs Dean “Guido” Antonelli and John Medlen, the two-time champion bounced back and placed himself firmly in the field during that same session.

During the final round of qualifying, as favorable conditions once again returned to the California track, Capps said he knew that his tuners were up to something big. Moments later he overtook the rest of the field in his NAPA Auto Parts Toyota Supra, earning his sixth pole position of the season and the 35th of his career.

“I got on the radio and I was screaming and yelling like I was on Space Mountain down the road at Disneyland for the first time as a kid,” Capps said. “I was fighting for my life to keep (the car) between the guardrail and the centerline. It was hunting and moving all over the track. A lot of times you think it is taking e.t. away, but I felt the clutch come in sooner than normal. We had issues yesterday, and it turned out it was an ignition issue, but today it just had that max cackle that Gary Scelzi always talked about. When your car is banging and popping and just sounding good at idle. It sounded like that all day today.

“We were worried the conditions might cool off too much being late in the day, but it held its own. Guido got in the box a couple of times during the oil down and it got to where I was just like, ‘Let us get down the track and make a good run.’ I knew that we would show up and Guido would get it right down the track. I just have that utmost confidence. That is what has made it work all season long and I am going to continue to trust in him.”

MORE ACCOLADES - Troy Coughlin Jr. has accomplished a lot in his young career.

Few of those accomplishments, however, quite stack up to what he achieved on Saturday.

Already enjoying a banner year entering this weekend’s Auto Club NHRA Finals, Coughlin added to his hits list his second career No. 1 qualifier and his first at historic Auto Club Raceway at Pomona on Saturday as he overtook Greg Anderson to pace the field entering final eliminations on Sunday.

“There is nothing else like being here. I have loved drag racing since I could walk, since I can remember really, but to be low qualifier here at Auto Club is definitely going to be on the top of my list as far as professional career goes,” Coughlin said. “Today we made two really nice, clean runs down the 1320 here at Pomona. Hats off to everybody at Elite Motorsports, the engine shop, everybody in the pits. Everybody works so well together and there is a lot of passion, which makes having success so much fun.”

Coughlin drove his Jegs.com Chevrolet Camaro to the top of the field during session three, just nipping Friday’s provisional top qualifier Anderson by one thousandth of a second. Coughlin wrestled his machine to a 6.508-second pass at 210.80 mph for his first top qualifier award of the season.

Anderson slipped one spot to second with a 6.509 at 211.00 mph, while Dallas Glenn is third with a 6.514 at 210.77 mph. Aaron Stanfield (6.524) and Deric Kramer (6.526) round out the top five.

Erica Enders, who wrapped up her fifth Pro Stock championship two weeks ago in Las Vegas, qualified ninth.

Saturday’s strong session was no fluke for Coughlin as all four of his passes this weekend have fallen in the top three of the session, a testament to the work this team has put in away from the track.

“The guys in the dyno room, they’re pushing every day. For them, it is seven days a week, so hats off to them,” Coughlin said. “This is 100% their work and everybody at Elite Motorsports. That’s what makes racing here so much fun.”

Coughlin has enjoyed a breakout year in 2022, earning his first two career wins among five final rounds, leaving him and fellow Elite Motorsports teammates Enders and Stanfield as the top three drivers in points. Coughlin is currently third in points, but can overtake his teammate for second if it plays out on Sunday.

“It would be pretty cool (to finish second). I think the real highlight is me, Erica and Aaron all being one, two, three. I think that also says even more about the group we have here. Everybody cares and everybody is passionate,” Coughlin said. “That feeling of winning, that is the addiction. I can’t wait for tomorrow. I wish we could make four or five more runs right now.”

While the championship is already secured for Enders, Coughlin knows there is still plenty to be gained on Sunday if he can take a weekend of quick runs and a win into the offseason.

“I think that definitely adds a level of excitement, but tomorrow is a different day. You can have the fastest car here and not cross (the finish line) first. Tomorrow is about four great executions and we will take them one at a time,” Coughlin said.

Coughlin will face Shane Tucker in round one on Sunday.

FRIENDSHIP THROUGH SPORTSMANSHIP – Kim Parker gulped a bit. She sat three pairs behind one of the most versatile, most decorated race-car drivers in American motorsports history. And the Top Alcohol Dragster veteran saw Tony Stewart make a stout competition run in his first-ever drag race, two weeks ago at Las Vegas. 

“First car down the track and he runs a .21 [5.219-second elapsed time]. And I’m like, ‘Oh, God – he’s going to make us all look stupid,’” she said. 

She trumped him with a 5.198-second pass for what held up as the No. 1 qualifier for the Nevada Nationals, and it turned out that no one made anyone look stupid. She made a friend in eventual race runner-up Stewart, and likewise. 

“He’s a nice guy,” the Graham, Wash., racer said, even feeling a bit sorry for him. “The media was all over him. That I wouldn’t be able to handle, I don’t think. We were mid-conversation, and there are people right in his face, taking pictures. I’m like, ‘Oh, wow – give the man a minute.’ The poor man – they were literally in his face. I’m sure he’s used to that.”  

Parker and her Top Alcohol Dragster colleagues aren’t used to so much attention aimed at their Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series class. However, she said, “I felt no pressure at all. He was in a proven car and everyone knows he can drive anything he straps himself into. I was honored to be next to Tony” for the first passes down down a dragstrip in a race setting. They qualified first and second in the 16-car order and lined up opposite one another twice in qualifying. 

“He was extremely down to earth and normal. It was nice to talk to another person that enjoys racing as much as I do,” Parker said. “We talked about all of the different things both us have driven and what it's like to race with your spouse. [She races and talks shop with husband Randy Parker, a Top Alcohol Funny Car driver.] We got to visit quite a bit, as we ran each other in the second and third qualifying sessions.” 

She said she and her husband got a kick out of Stewart comparing notes about husbands and wives participating in the sport together. Stewart’s wife is Top Fuel driver Leah Pruett. Kim Parker said Stewart shared his experience with Pruett instructing him during his licensing procedure. 

“He said she was kind of a drill sergeant,” she said with a laugh. Stewart told her Pruett “looked at me and said, ‘Pack your ‘chutes.’ And I said, ‘I don’t know how.’ She was like, ‘What?!’ It’s all like Japanese to me. I don’t know how to pack a ‘chute.” Parker said, “It’s so normal for all of us, but if you don’t know, you don’t know until somebody teaches you.” 

But Parker said Stewart displayed better instincts that even his encouraging McPhillips Racing team gave him credit for. In his Friday night qualifying chance at Las Vegas, he told his crew members at the top end that he had cut off the engine early because he had experienced tire shake. She said they gently doubted him. So she piped up and told them, “He’s telling you the truth. I saw it. Go look at the computer. You’ll see it in the driveline.” 

He also apologized to Parker for what he considered a faux pas at the starting line. She said he told her after the run, “Kim, I’m so sorry about what happened on the Tree.” But she said, “I’m thinking, ‘What happened on the Tree? I don’t know what you’re talking about.’” 

Stewart said, “I looked up and my guy had his foot in the staging beam.” She said, “Honestly, I didn’t even notice it. I just figured he was waiting for me. But he was worried about it.” 

He said the next day, “The only thing that stood out in the three runs [was] I did my burnout last night, backed up when he waved me forward, started easing out the clutch, and then tried to go backwards. It will do that if you have it in reverse, but you're easing out of it, and it barely moved an inch, and I'm like, “oh, wrong gear”. So it's a mistake on the driver's side. 

“But in the same run, he waved me in, he gets you pretty close to the beams. When he stopped me I looked at the tree, and I was already in the pre-stage bulb, I'm like, ‘OK – gather this in real quick. Nothing's happened. Nothing's wrong.’ It's good to kind of have experiences like that, because it's not always going to be perfect, and it's not always going to be smooth, but it's how do you recover from it and not panic and stay in the mode you're supposed to be in, stay in the cadence you're supposed to stay in,” Stewart said. “And literally, I just waited on Kim to hit the pre-stage bulb, then at that point, continued with the procedure. 

“So I've been happy,” he said. “We've had some small curveballs. I'd never had tire shake before, and so we went through that. We've had a mistake on the line, small mistakes that nobody even noticed. Rich [McPhillips] Sr. didn't even notice it. He was waving me forward, and didn't even notice the car went backwards first. It was such a small move.” 

Just the same, he said, “It's details that I pay attention to and details that Leah and Matt [Hagan, his other driver in the year-old Tony Stewart Racing NHRA operation in the NHRA] have instilled into me to pay attention to all those details. And, you know, all those details are super-critical and all the time, the cadence of everything is super-important. So I've focused on procedure more than anything and just trying to not make those mistakes. But if I do make a mistake of not freaking out and getting out of time and getting out of the cadence, and I feel like that's a good thing if I can recover from those and still do the run correctly.”   

Stewart’s first test with the McPhillips team came at Brainerd, Minn., this July. And he said, “I knew the night before I started driving the car – when I went in to get fitted [for the car] and just talking to him, it was the second time I'd met him – I realized that this was a good group of people to be with and do all the testing. Even if I made mistakes or needed to change something, he just has a way of not making you feel bad about it, of being not overly encouraging you, but just talking to you and saying, ‘Hey, you need to think about this or do this a little bit different.’ And you feel comfortable with them. So I'm really happy that I have the opportunity to work with this family and their team. That's the way you want to start a venture like this, being paired up with the right people.” 

LOOKING AT THE DAY - The last time Brittany Force won an NHRA Top Fuel championship, she did so by overtaking the points leader. This go-round, she's in control of her destiny. 

Saturday, following the conclusion of her 42nd career No. 1 qualifier, Force was hard-pressed to determine which pathway to a championship was more desirable. 

"I don't know. It's a whole different mindset," Force said. "I've been here before. That gives me a little bit of confidence coming into it that we handled it before. It's familiar territory and we came out on top. So this is a little different. We're in a different position. We're out ahead, but not by very much. It could change so quickly. So really, it's just pulling from past experience. This team is incredible, what we've done all season long, what we've done this weekend. We just need to keep on hitting our numbers."

"It's finding a little bit in both. Obviously there's all that added pressure, and there's those nerves, but you have those already on race day. It is different because now there's a championship on the line. There's so much out on the line, just within reach for all of us. So it's finding a way to control that, not let that overwhelm you."

Force is admittedly a ladder watcher. 

"I always look at the ladder. I don't pick it apart," Force admitted. "If you start going into playing out different scenarios, you're getting too far ahead of yourself. Look at the ladder. Look who I'm running. I stay in my lane. We look at round one. We go one round at a time, is what it is. After round one's done, then we regroup, and we move forward from there."



TUNER IN-N-OUT OF TOP ALCOHOL DRAGSTER – Aside from the pioneers of the sport who worked on the race cars they drove, few crew chiefs have taken on driving duties. Mike Neff comes to mind as a modern-day example of one who did. Perhaps, though, some might remember when Rob Wendland – who has plied his trade at John Force Racing, Don Schumacher Racing, and Hoosier Thunder Motorsports – got behind the wheel of a Top Alcohol Dragster and fared really well. 

Last week’s announcement that In-N-Out Burger’s will be title sponsor of these NHRA Finals as well as the historic dragstrip at Pomona, Calif., revived memories for Wendland. He competed in 1999 only, taking the iconic branding to the winners circle at two national events (Joliet, Ill., near Chicago, and Madison, Ill., near St. Louis) and at two divisional races (Scribner, Neb., and Earlville, Iowa). He was the 1999 sportsman-level rookie of the year, and saw David Wells – the driver for whom he tuned the previous year – ace him out for the divisional championship by five points. 

The chance to drive for car owner Mike Troxel (father of Top Fuel, Funny Car, and Pro Mod racer Melanie Troxel) came about when he was consulting with the Colorado-based team. At the 1998 U.S. Nationals, Mike Troxel told Wendland, “We’ve got to find another driver next year. Melanie’s going to drive Jerry Darien’s A/Fuel car.” 

Wendland has a healthy sense of his own abilities, and he startled Troxel by volunteering to replace Melanie Troxel in the cockpit. He told Mike Troxel, “Oh, man – I bet you I could drive one of these things.” 

“Oh, really?” Troxel said. “What did you drive before?” 

Wendland recalled. “I said, ‘Nothin’. But I stood behind ’em for about 20 years.” 

Troxel seemed to dismiss the notion, telling Wendland, “Go get your license, and then we’ll talk.” 

Wendland said, “I was actually tuning another car – Bill Hynes’. I did everything in-house, and he just showed up at the racetrack. I took care of it, massaged it, babied it, maintained it.” And he asked Hynes if he could use his race car at an Oklahoma divisional event to upgrade the Super Comp license he already had earned in Kansas City. Hynes said sure, and Wendland remembered that “I felt really comfortable in the car. I really did. It was awesome.” 

So when 1999 rolled around, Wendland told Troxel, “I got my license.”

And Troxel said, “You’re kidding me.” 

But Troxel received the approval of Darien, who was managing the In-N-Out sponsorship for the car. “And that’s how I ended up driving for Mike Troxel,” Wendland said. 

“At one point, I went 5.46 [-second elapsed time] at 250-something [mph]. That car was super-fast, a lot of fun,” he said. 

Wells’ slim margin of victory in the Division 5 Top Alcohol Dragster title chase brings an almost-comedic vibe to Wendland. “It was like a Hail Mary, because he had to go to Phoenix at the last division race of the year and win the race. And he did. I watched [his car] going by in the stands. We were running good, but it was the first time the car shook [the tires] real hard, and I lost in the first round or something like that. It was awful. NHRA had already called me up and asked me what my jacket size was.” However, in all, Wendland said of Wells, “He's a good guy. I tuned his car the year before, in ’98. I called him up and told him I had the opportunity to drive a car and asked how he felt about that, and he said, ‘Aw, you don’t want to do that.’ He wanted me to tune his car. I said, ‘Nope. I’m going to drive.’” 

Throughout the entire 1999 season, Mike Troxel battled cancer. He passed away that offseason. And his widow, Barb, co-owner of the race car, said, “We have enough money. We could run the car.” But Wendland told her, “No, I don’t think I would be the same. But that was fun. I had a blast. I was so comfortable in that car. Finished sixth.”

The experience helped him after he returned to crew-chief duties. He said, “All those years you stand behind them [the cars] on the starting line. You feel that pressure. You feel it as a crew chief. You feel all that same pressure as a driver does. You’re looking at the light. You’re looking at the car. Your reaction’s right there with ’em. So there’s a little bit of conditioning that goes in it, standing behind these things, then having your hands all over ’em.”  

The In-N-Out Top Fuel Dragster chapter was a fun one in Wendland’s life. “Then I was back in the tuning business, and that was all good. They ended up selling the car to Jonathan Pickett [from Massachusetts].” 

Wendland did drive his brother’s front-engine bracket car at the 2021 Funny Car Chaos race at Dallas – and cut a .019-second light in his first run in that ride. 

“I feel like a natural behind the wheel a little bit,” he said kind of wistfully. 

Bobby Bode was on a strong pass until near the 660 lights and when the engine went boom, creating a fire from under the body of his Mustang. He was uninjured, but unfortunately the engine failure cost him a spot in the field. (Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)


TWICE AS NICE - Richard Freeman had a vision for Pro Stock when it was failing. The veteran team owner hunkered down and developed a formula to make the factory hot rod division viable for years to come.

Saturday afternoon at the AAA NHRA Finals, Freeman announced the Johnson's Horsepowered Garage (JHG) team would expand to two cars with 2022 NHRA Pro Stock world champion Erica Enders joining Bo Butner under the #JHGDriven umbrella. Both JHG entries will run the full NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series Pro Stock schedule.

"It's a dream come true for us to have Jason Johnson and his family want to be a part of our program," Freeman said. "Bo brought him in, and although we haven't had the season that we would like to have had with Bo's car, Jason sees the future bright at Elite Motor Sports, and so we're excited to have him and his family, Nicky, everybody involved."

Johnson is the driving force behind Johnson's Horsepowered Garage, a brand that carries out his vision and passion for all things automotive. A lifelong and self-professed "car guy," Johnson has thoughtfully amassed a world-class collection of showpieces in his middle-Tennessee headquarters that includes everything from vintage muscle cars to modern-day hot rods and supercars.

The purpose of Johnson's Horsepowered Garage is rooted in preserving and showcasing automotive history. The vehicles are driven to and displayed at events by Johnson and his team with the goal of growing interest and keeping car culture thriving for generations.

It was because of Johnson that Butner came out of retirement to race Pro Stock again.

"I was retired again; now he is not going to let that happen," Butner said. "Jason's a great guy. He and I are both car guys. That's kind of how he clicked. We like old cars, he likes different type car than I do, but he's a great guy. He loves drag racing. We need more guys like this in our sport, and we're very fortunate to have him not only as a sponsor but a friend."

And for the newly crowned five-time NHRA Pro Stock champion Enders, a new marketing partner for the 2023 season works well for her.

"It's very exciting," Enders said. "It's something you wish for your whole career is to know that you have a job the following season. We've been really blessed with great partners at Elite Motor Sports over the last nine years that I've driven there, and Melling and Gallagher and People Lease are still partners of ours and we're super, super stoked to have Jason on board. He and his wife, Nikki, are a great asset to our program. They like to have a lot of fun, and most importantly, as Bo mentioned, they love our sports. Exciting times."

THE BEARD/JC DYNAMIC - Lee Beard made his intentions known from the onset once he was hired as a consultant for Cruz Pedregon Racing. He's working alongside of tuner John Collins. 

"I'm not coming here to take anybody's job," Pedregon said of Beard's first words. "I've been there, done that." 

As Pedregon explained, really liked what he saw with what JC was doing. He "He really was complimentary of JC's work ethic, his note keeping, his professionalism, his attitude. He just can't say enough about the guy. He really, really likes him, and that's a credit to JC and his racing experience."

Pedregon said there are no egos regarding the team's approach. 

"Lee did the right thing, fit in however he could, and there's no ego stuff going on," Pedregon confirmed. "It's worked out better than I anticipated."

The arrangement has worked out so well, Pedregon confirmed Beard will return in 2023.

"Lee and I talked about keeping this thing going, so he'll be there with us next year," Pedregon said. "This is a test for us;  we'd just like to win the race and do some cracking on these guys."​

TORRENCE HAS NEW ROLE – It’s hard to think of Top Fuel’s Steve Torrence – who earned the past four championships and quipped a year ago that he’s “the new sheriff in town” – as a spoiler. But that’s his role Sunday as eliminations unfold and a new class marshal is sworn in. 

And he knows it all too well. 

“We shot ourselves in the foot a long time ago,” Torrence said during qualifying Saturday. The car’s running good, but you just don’t have the momentum. And we didn’t peak at the right time of the year. I thought we dug ourselves out of the hole, but we jumped right back in it at Dallas.” 

Then the No. 2 qualifier here at Pomona made what some might regard a surprising declaration. 

He prefaced it with a statement that wasn’t at all stunning: “Admittedly, I’m not a fan of this points system.” 

Then he said, “But Brittany Force has kicked our butts all year long. And I’m rooting for her. I hope she’s the champ. We’ll try to play spoiler and do what we can do.” 

Force overtook him late in 2017 to win her championship. 

DIFFERENT PREPARATIONS - In the first round of Top Fuel eliminations Sunday, Leah Pruett will start from the No. 4 spot and will meet Alex Laughlin. And in the Funny Car class, her Tony Stewart Racing teammate Matt Hagan is the No. 3 qualifier. He’ll face Steven Densham in the opening round. 

And their team owner is in for another emotional swing as they move through the staging lanes at Auto Club Raceway. 

“Leah, her demeanor in the tow vehicle versus Matt are polar opposites from each other,” Pruett’s husband (and in this case boss) Tony Stewart said. 

“Makes me think back – I have four [NASCAR] Cup drivers. And before the race, I say something different to each of those four drivers, because I know what button to push that’s going to get 100 percent out of them,” he said. 

“Leah’s got music in there, and she’s got music that’s turned up so loud that I can’t even hear myself think. She likes to get all amped up before she runs. I’d rather have Lawrence Welk playing in the background, almost be comatose, because I don’t need to get excited up. When I get in the car, I’m already getting excited,” Stewart said. “So she likes to be amped up. 

“And Matt, you can talk to him. He’s putting his stuff on and he’s still in a conversation with you. I’m like, ‘You’re going 300 miles an hour and you’re talking about what we’re going to have for dinner tonight and what time our dinner reservations are.’ I’m like, ‘This guy’s not wired right,’” Stewart said. “It just shows the difference in personalities and mindsets. What each one of ’em does to get ’em in the frame of mind they want to be in when they get in the car is different for every driver.”


BOOM! - Across all sports on nearly every continent, there comes a moment in every championship battle that defines what it truly means to be a champion.

Brittany Force hopes her moment came Friday night.

Chasing her second career Top Fuel championship, Force entered this weekend’s Auto Club NHRA Finals seven points clear of her closest rival Justin Ashley. On Friday, Force extended that lead to 13 points, but perhaps more importantly, set the stage for a clear advantage on race day with the provisional pole and a new NHRA speed record in the class.

Force and crew chief David Grubnic called their shot under the lights Friday evening at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, powering their Monster Energy machine to a stout 3.641-second pass at 338.94 mph, resetting her own speed record set earlier this year in St. Louis.

“That is a great start for our team to really be able to grab those points wherever we can,” Force said. “It is pretty awesome to run that 338 and grab the mile-per-hour record at my home track. When I got out on the other end, they said 338 and I said, ‘Did we beat our St. Louis 338? What were the numbers on it?’ It’s pretty cool to hold that track record here at my home race at the track I grew up running. I love it here.”

While Force earned six crucial bonus points on Friday thanks to her chart-topping pass and another top-four run earlier in the day, her closest rival Ashley failed to find any points on opening day. His 3.706 at 329.42 mph was only good enough for seventh after two of four qualifying sessions.

“We’re looking at it one round at a time. That run, we planned to push the car. I feel like the points will probably be set tomorrow night, but it is just one round at a time,” Force said. “We want to go low each session and try to get those points wherever we can get them and then we’ll reset on race day and look at who we’re running and how the whole thing is going to fall into place.

“It ultimately will come down to race day and we’re only just so many points apart. Anything could change in qualifying, so it’s good that we are getting those points while we can.”

REMEMBER ME? - There was no shortage of drama in the Funny Car category during opening day at the Auto Club NHRA Finals.

Robert Hight entered the NHRA season finale holding a narrow two-round advantage over championship rivals Ron Capps and Matt Hagan. He ended the day having lost that extra round advantage, while Hagan was able to leapfrog the defending series champion into second, just 59 points behind Hight.

Meanwhile, while all of that was going on further down the order, veteran Cruz Pedregon stunned the field with a 3.840-second pass at 322.58 mph during the first round of qualifying, good enough to give him the provisional pole after two of four qualifying sessions at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.

If his time holds, it will be his first No. 1 qualifier of the season and the 62nd of his career.

While it was certainly a joyous moment for Pedregon and his crew after a horrid season, the exciting news had to wait as Pedregon had removed his radio from the car.

“I’ve been surprised before at the finish line, but nothing like this. I took the radio out of my car because, whatever I need to know, they’ll tell me afterwards,” Pedregon said. “So I didn’t know what we ran the first run. I thought it ran another 88 because that is what we ran when we tested in Vegas on Monday. I thought if it ran close to that 88 I’ll be happy. When they said 84 and started pounding on the hood I was excited.

“But I’ve got to be honest, both 84s were a surprise to us. If anybody on my team tells you that’s what we were trying to run, that’s just not the case. We were trying to run an 88 again and, with these cars, they’ll surprise you now and then. And our Snap-On car did today for sure.”

Pedregon actually had two noteworthy laps, backing up his chart-topping 3.840 with a 3.849 in session two as his Snap-On Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat was second quickest of the session.

“To say I was happy, excited and relieved all in one would be an understatement,” Pedregon said. “It was such a great run, and honestly the car had a cylinder out about three-quarters of the way down the track on that one. Had we been able to put the back half of this run with the first one, it would’ve been a little bit better.”

THE LOW-DOWN - The maximum number of points a driver in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock, and Pro Stock Motorcycle can earn this weekend at the NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, Calif., is 191. 

Only 199 points separate top-ranked Brittany Force and No. 10 Clay Millican in the Top Fuel class, but the champion will almost certainly come from the trio of Force, No. 2 Justin Ashley, or No. 3 Mike Salinas. Antron Brown is fourth, 78 points behind Force, and Steve Torrence is fifth, 87 points back. With too many drivers to leapfrog, No. 6 Austin Prock (-126) and No. 7 Josh Hart (-161), have slipped out of the championship conversation.  

Force, the 2017 champion, knows her second title isn’t a guaranteed deal. 

“It’s Pomona. It's the final race, so it's points-and-a-half. It could still swap,” she said. “It's NHRA drag racing. Anything could happen. The things that you least expect end up happening. And I've seen it done before in Pomona, just incredible runs, incredible people picking up points.” 

Force said her Monster Energy / Flav-R-Pac Dragster team is capable of “doing the unimaginable on race day when you need to” but said others are, too. “So it's still anybody's game. It could go any way,” she said. “There's still other people fighting for it.” 

The most dangerous one, for her, is Ashley. He had the lead until the most recent race, when he lost in the first round and she won the event. He entered this finale trailing her by a mere seven points. 

“We would’ve loved to have an extended points lead coming into Pomona,” he said. “But with the elite level of competition in Top Fuel, it’s no surprise the championship comes down to the final race. Everyone is going to take their best shot, and we expect to do the same. We’re grateful to be in this position and excited about the opportunity to race for the championship. 

“Our approach to the weekend is the same as it’s been all year. We’re going to focus on racing to the best of our ability each pass and let the rest take care of itself. There'll be a lot going on around us, but it’s in the best interest of our Phillips Connect / Vita C Energy / Toyota team to focus on ourselves.” 

In the Funny Car class, it also has come down to three contenders: Robert Hight, Ron Capps, and Matt Hagan. Hight, who has led the standings since the June race at Norwalk, Ohio, is in front still, with Capps and Hagan 61 and 63 points behind, respectively. These three have combined for six of the last eight Funny Car titles and represent eight championships altogether. Hight (who reigned in 2009, 2017, and 2019) and Hagan (2011, 2014, 2020) both have a chance to join legends Don Prudhomme, Kenny Bernstein, and John Force as a four-time class king. 

Every single Funny Car pass and point matter this weekend for Hight, Capps, and Hagan. With points worth 1.5 times more than at most races, Capps and Hagan can get to within two rounds of Hight if they close their gaps to less than 60 points during the four rounds of qualifying. Surprisingly, none of the three scored a single qualifying bonus point in the opening session Friday, as none of them made a full pass under power. 

“It’s an uphill battle and we have to come out swinging,” Hagan said. “You have to get those small qualifying points. It’s not like you can lay back and have the strategy of trying to get [Hight] early [in eliminations]. You have to gather up the small points in qualifying to make the battle under 60 points. We’ve put ourselves in the position where we have no choice but to try and scoop up four points in qualifying to get it under 60 points once we go rounds. We’ll then have a two-round difference, out of four rounds. We’ll see where the cards fall. We just have to go out there and run what we run. Hopefully, he’ll have a bad race and we have a great one. We just have to keep pressing. I know it’s easier said than done, but we have nothing to lose. 

“In 2010 when I was the runner-up,” he said, “all I had to do was show up and go two rounds to win. I was eliminated in the first round, so (John) Force won the championship. I’ve been on Robert’s side of it and lost it, so that’s why we’re going to go out there and dig deep to still give ourselves a shot. It’s still very possible.” 

WHAT ELSE TO WATCH FOR – Several factors will contribute to the results this weekend. Among them are the stage-managed points system that’s unique to this event and the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis, the weather, and the racetrack conditions – and then we have the human element: the spoilers. 

Points and a half: The NHRA already had manipulated points for the start of its Countdown to the Championship (bunching the top 10 title-eligible drivers in 10-point increments but giving the No. 1 seed a 20-point advantage). Then in 2015, it introduced more points-scheming, first at the U.S. Nationals, with the points-and-a-half format and later added to the season finale. 

That means a pro racer can earn the maximum of 191 points: 150 for winning, 10 for being the No. 1 qualifier, 16 for the most qualifying bonus points, and 15 for simply showing up to the event. 

At the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis, where Countdown fields are set, the extra points might or might not make a difference among the leaders, depending on how the previous regular-season races (15 this year) have played out. In the Countdown, by the time the Finals start, contenders have had only five races in a fixed-points context to state their cases. 

At Indianapolis this September, Brittany Force and Robert Hight retained their points leads, although both were robbed of sizeable leads (Force’s busted from 94 to 20, Hight’s from 250 to 20). And aside from No. 3 Steve Torrence and No. 4 Justin Ashley trading spots and Antron Brown leaping from 10th place to sixth, the lineup wasn’t jumbled much. The same happened in Funny Car, as Capps moved up to second and relegated Hagan to third. The slight movement was a help to those who gained one position and an annoyance to those who lost one but otherwise didn’t move the needle much for those above ninth place. 

At Pomona, points-and-a-half could be much more significant. In Top Fuel, Brittany Force has a mere seven-point edge on Ashley, and No. 3-ranked Mike Salinas is a sleeper, only 66 points off the pace. Hight still commands the Funny Car standings. Capps is second, 61 points behind, with a two-point margin on No. 3 Hagan. 

Looking back at the Indianapolis race that closed the regular season, Capps said, “Well, Robert had like a 300-point lead [250, for the record] going in there, so, yeah, it wouldn't have mattered there. And Indy’s Indy – you just go to win the trophy there or move yourself in position. But, yeah, it's way different [here at Pomona], because actually you have a chance [at the championship] going into Pomona. Indy, they were so far out on everybody, there was no chance going into Brainerd, really.” 

Hight said, “I think there was some shuffling in Indy, some of the number 10 spots, so it was a big deal, but with only six races leading up to points-and-a-half and basically a complete reset, it changes the game big-time.” 

Steve Torrence is hoping so. He’s one of a handful who are hoping to connect on a “Hail Mary” performance in this one last shot at the championship. “With points-and-a-half on the table, we’re just two rounds behind Brittany and Justin and in a dead heat with Mike and Antron,” he said. “That means it’ll all come down to what happens in qualifying and the first couple rounds. I know I’ll have a race car that can win.  We’ll just have to see how it plays out.” 

Until 2016, the NHRA also awarded 20 points for a national elapsed-time record (but not for a speed record). That has gone away, and Capps said he wishes he had the chance to gain 20 additional points. 

“The only bummer about going into this weekend is NHRA took away the bonus for a national record being set,” Capps said. “That last time that we were allowed to do that was crazy. I mean, there were three or four cars throwing down record runs. So we're just going to try to get it in qualifying if we can, which is a tough task against the AAA car [Hight’s]. We can get it under two rounds. You never know what's going to happen in Pomona.” 

The weather: Capps said even before arriving at Pomona, “The weather is looking like it’ll be prime for one of those ‘throw-down weekends’ The weather conditions look unbelievable. The time has changed with daylight savings, so it's going to get darker and cooler. There's a chance it could be a little too cold. So we could see these sessions both Friday night and Saturday, late afternoon, where it gets to the point where it's actually too cold to throw down and we could be seeing crazy cars at the top of the list. You don't know. So you never know what the weather is going to do.” 

Hight’s position is that “if it's hot or cold, I think we all kind of run the same. We just got to race better and be smarter.” 

The track: Robert Hight reminded that “they reground Pomona over the winter last year. It's a lot better racetrack than it used to be, so I keep saying it . . . We're going to have to make perfect runs. It could be thousandths of a second. It is crazy how close all this is, and I don't think I have an advantage over them.” 

The spoilers: Hight said, “I'm battling with two guys, but there's also some other spoilers that can play a big factor,” Hight, a resident of nearby Anaheim Hills, said. “JR Todd's running good. Alexis De Joria has a great car. The boss, John Force. . . They may have something to say about all this.” 

HMMM . . .  – Here are some notable quotes, and a couple of surprising tidbits, from the Top Fuel and Funny Car title contenders before they arrived at Pomona: 

Robert Hight (Funny Car points leader): “I wasn't in the Countdown talk last year. We were not in this position. We didn't have a chance come [the final] Sunday. So we remembered that,” he said. “You learn from that, and this is exactly where you want to be going into the last day of the season. I'm super-excited about it, but it's never been more competitive as far as cars performance, as far as driver performance. You've got to cut a light. If you miss it a hair, you can be walking away early rounds, and that's exactly what we don't want to have happen. So it's never been tougher. I definitely have respect for the guys that I'm racing. They're the best. And if you hold the trophy at the end of the day, you definitely know you deserve it and you know you've beat the best.” 

Justin Ashley’s first-round stumble against Clay Millican at the most recent event also has kept Hight cautious. 

“We all saw what happened with Top Fuel in Vegas. Justin Ashley had a pretty commanding lead [82 points over No. 2 Force after winning at Dallas], and if he had gone a few rounds there, he would have been the leader and with a great shot at winning a championship going into Pomona. So we know things can turn in a hurry,” Hight said. “We really are focused on trying to get every qualifying point we can. We want to go out there and make four perfect runs in qualifying, and that will position us to where 61 points is a lot better than 59. I don't know how it works with 60 in a tiebreaker, but we want to be 61 or better. I don't think it's possible to get to 91 [which] would make it to where you just have to win first round. That's not possible. So we're not overlooking anything. We've got to make sure we make four perfect runs in qualifying, and then you got to do the same on Sunday.” 

Ron Capps (No. 2-ranked Funny Car driver and current champion): He said he’s amazed that he’s in this position, stalking eight-time winner Hight from just 61 points out – in his first year as a team owner, with five victories to his credit. “You really couldn't ask for a better shot,” he said. “Honestly, this year has been a dream year, nightmare sometimes, but mainly a dream. I'm living the life I never thought I would have as an NHRA team owner. I was a fan sitting in the grandstands, watching [Joe] Amato and [Gary] Ormsby in those big moments in Pomona, and I've gotten to live those now, both last year and going into this year. There's nothing better.  And Robert will tell you the same thing. It's waking up Sunday morning at Pomona and walking into your pit area or anywhere in those whole grounds and having a shot at a championship. It's a great feeling. It’s been a crazy year, but crazy in a great way.” 
Matt Hagan (No. 3-ranked Funny Car driver):  Hagan and Hight have squared off in the final round four times this season, splitting the decisions. Hight won the first two, at Phoenix and Richmond. Hagan has won the two most recent meetings, at Epping, N.H., and two weeks ago at Las Vegas. After the Nevada Nationals, Hagan said, “Robert is a tough customer. We're going to give all we got. We've had two good races going to the final in Dallas and then the win [at Las Vegas].” We actually have a new combo that we're working with.” He said crew chief Dickie Venables and Company “threw [it] in there” the Saturday night, before eliminations Sunday. Hagan said, “I'm excited about what we found and how the car's running and what we're doing. I do feel the momentum building back up. I feel like these are our type of races, our type of conditions. I've done really, really well and won at Pomona a bunch. We don't have anything to lose. We have to throw down and we have to scoop up as many points as we can and we have to be aggressive.” 
Brittany Force (Top Fuel points leader): “It’s Pomona. It's the final race, so it's points-and-a-half. It could still swap. It's NHRA drag racing. Anything could happen. The things that you least expect end up happening. And I've seen it done before in Pomona, just incredible runs, incredible people picking up points.” 

She mentioned “The Run” in which Tony Schumacher claimed one of his eight Top Fuel championships in 2006 in the final run of the final day, winning the race and setting a national record (which carried 20 points then) to top Doug Kalitta by 14 points. “The earth had to stop, and the moon had to move. Everything had to be right,” Schumacher told KickinTheTires.net. 

Force likened her 2017 accomplishment to that: “doing the unimaginable on race day when you need to.” She said, “So it's still anybody's game. It could go any way, and there's still other people fighting for it.” 
Justin Ashley (Top Fuel’s No. 2 seed): “There's a host of other people, and we know that if we leave the door even slightly cracked, they're ready to take advantage of the opportunity. We've seen it countless times. We've seen drivers, teams come into Pomona either in the lead or behind just a little bit, or behind significantly. And the way things look going into the race look completely different at the end of that race and at the end of the season. So anything could happen. The easiest thing to do is get caught up in all the what-ifs and all the different scenarios. There are a lot of good drivers, a lot of great teams out there, ready to pounce. So, everybody's going to bring their A-game, and you'll see it throughout the weekend. But from a team perspective, from a driver perspective, it's not up to us to worry about that.” 
Mike Salinas (No. 3-ranked Top Fuel driver): “We have our work cut out for us. This Top Fuel category is stacked with stout competitors. It’s impressive, and it means that the fans are going to enjoy a great show. Our Pep Boys/Scrappers Racing crew has been working hard all year. We are just going to keep doing what we do out there. If I do my job, we should be in a great position.”  

Justin Ashley and Brittany Force both were surprised when reminded that they have met in eliminations only once this season, in the final round this spring at Houston.  

“I'm actually surprised to hear that stat. I didn't realize that,” Force said. “I know I’ve raced him in previous years. You could look at that one event that we lined up, but [the NHRA Finals is] a whole new ballgame, and whether we line up or we don't, however it works out, excited for the challenge and excited to be out there chasing this thing with him.”  

Ashley said he wasn’t aware of that statistic, either. He quipped, “I don’t know . . . Maybe that's why I've been able to collect so many points, because we haven't had to race her. I don't know, maybe. I remember that final in Houston, for sure, but they're tough and things work out funny. It's been a tough year, really good competition, and we feel like we've raced everybody so many times. So to hear that we've raced her only once is a pretty amazing stat. Who knows? It might change this weekend. We may line up head-to-head this weekend.  

“But no matter who we race – and I know it's the boring answer and I understand that – but we have to race against ourselves. We got to race the lane. We have to be the best version of ourselves that we could be. And that's what we're focused on. But whether it's Brittany or me or Mike [Salinas] or Steve [Torrence] or Antron [Brown] or whoever's behind us, we're all going to go out there ready to go and race whoever we have to race, because everything's on the line this time and there's no turning back.” 


‘MYSTERY’ CLUTCH MAN – Justin Ashley is in a strong position to earn the first championship of his four-year career. And most would say, and rightly so, that it’s the guiding hands of crew chief Mike Green and his assistant, equally experience-rich Tommy De Lago. And it’s no shock that Ashley’s father, Mike, has imparted wisdom from his years in the driver’s seat in the Pro Modified, Top Fuel, and Funny Car classes. However, one person who just might be overlooked in the Ashley / Dustin Davis Motorsports camp is . . . team owner Dustin Davis. 

“I think people probably don't talk or know enough about Dustin Davis, even to this point, because he's such a humble and quiet guy who's always behind the scenes,” Ashley said. “But he means so much to our team. How often or when do you ever see an owner of the team actually doing the clutch, who's actually the clutch guy getting in there? And it's what he loves to do. He loves leading by example, working closely with the team. And in addition to working on the clutch, he's obviously the guy who handles the day-to-day operations of the team. 

“So, from a leadership standpoint, he's been an integral part of bringing this personnel in, helping to bring Mike Green in, helping to bring Tommy De Lago in, but also helping to establish the right culture. And in this sport, in any sport, really, it's super critical to have the right culture and have a winning mindset. And Dustin has done a great job of instilling that into the organization, into our team. So his presence is really invaluable. We feel lucky to be able to work closely with a guy like Dustin,” Ashley said. 

“He also makes racing fun. It has to be a healthy balance of being competitive, going out there, winning races, but also enjoying what you're doing,” he said. “So I can't say enough good things about Dustin.” 

Ashley described Green as an even-tempered crew chief – who can become plenty intense on occasion.  

“Mike, in my opinion, has the right approach, and that's obvious: he has won two championships, won a ton of races. His approach is he's very even-keeled. He does not ride that emotional roller coaster,” he said. 

“Whether it's something happening in the pit or whether something doesn't go his way on the starting line or throughout races during the season, he doesn't ride that emotional roller coaster. He's very even-keeled, which allows him to be methodical and go through his thought process the best way possible, which I think is just a wonderful approach,” the young driver said. 

“But he is über-competitive,” Ashley said. “I mean, we've had situations where we've come back and not accomplished what we want to, and I don't even want to go into the lounge myself to see him, to be honest with you, because he's that competitive. He's wants to win that bad. 

“Mike has been an excellent mentor for me, somebody that I've learned a lot from and that I continue to learn from as the season goes on,” Ashley said of Green But he has the right approach. His approach is pretty simple. It's be methodical, think things out, evaluate the situation, and put your best foot forward, and don't ride that emotional rollercoaster. 

But when the door to the lounge closes, it gets emotional, because he's a competitive guy and he wants to win,” Ashley said. 

PREMATURE ‘SILLY SEASON’ RUMOR?? – The latest rumored shuffling among crew chiefs is that Mike Neff and Jon Schaffer, who tune Bob Tasca III’s Ford Mustang Funny Car, will move over to the Maynard Family Racing team at the season’s end to do the same for Tony Schumacher’s dragster. Tasca confirmed earlier this week that Neff and Schaffer still will be with his team this weekend. But this weekend, Aaron Brooks, who most recently has tuned Doug Foley’s dragster, is assisting Neff and Schaffer in the Tasca pit. 

In the meantime, a representative of the Maynard Family Racing / Don Schumacher Racing team verified that Phil Shuler and Todd Okuhara will continue to oversee Tony Schumacher’s dragster this weekend and that the organization’s policy remains making any necessary announcements during the offseason. 




MEDLEN’S PASSION FOR SAFETY WILL REMAIN STRONG – When longtime Funny Car crew chief John Medlen retires to his mountain cabin near Ellijay, Ga., following this race, he is confident he will be able to go to bed at night satisfied that the drag-racing world has a heightened vigilance when it comes to safety. 

“I feel comfortable,” Medlen said, quickly clarifying, “I’ll never give up on it. I'll never say, ‘Oh, we got it.’” With a literal nod toward Ron Capps Motorsports’ NAPA Toyota Supra and a figurative nod to all the race cars in the Camping World and Lucas Oil drag racing series pits, he said, “These things will bite in a heartbeat if you say that.” 

His son knew it. Eric Medlen followed the 2003 news story out of Las Vegas about Montecore, the white tiger that seriously injured Roy Horn of the famous Siegfried & Roy magic/entertainment extravaganza. And the young Funny Car driver dubbed his race car “Montecore.” And he said back then exactly the same thing his father did nearly 20 years later: “These things will bite you in a heartbeat.” 

Montecore, the race car, took its cue from Montecore, the tiger. It bit Eric Medlen in March 2007 during a testing run at Gainesville, Fla. Medlen was unable to survive the effect of severe side-to-side head battering while experiencing an almost-unheard-of degree of tire shake. From his death four days after the accident grew a collaborative effort to improve roll cages, helmets, chassis tubing, and materials, as well as study concussions . . . a research- and results-oriented movement called The Eric Medlen Project. The name spreads across the John Force Racing headquarters at Brownsburg, Ind., in gigantic lettering – bigger-than-life like Eric Medlen, representing the big and bold, larger-than-life purpose of saving lives.    

John Medlen, who was his son’s crew chief, is closing his career not at John Force Racing, not at Don Schumacher Racing, but at Ron Capps Motorsports. However, his mission to ensure Eric’s incident was not in vain knows no bounds and has no real conclusion. 

“It'll never end . . . when your heart's in it and you know what can happen,” John Medlen said. 

He said he can rest better, assured “that we've done pretty much everything humanly possible that we know of to protect the driver in his office,” Still, he also knows he might “wake up in the middle night, wondering about things,” because, he said, “that’s just the nature of the vision.” 

He said he’s convinced the mission will continue: “There's still that energy in the industry that they want to keep going, they want to have safety, we want to have the drivers come home at night. So I think that'll be ongoing. Once you expose the potential aspects of this race car and what can happen, I think everybody's more aware and so they're more cognizant of it.” 

John Medlen’s faith in God is strong. And he used a Biblical example to illustrate a passing of the baton to others who will carry on with the pursuit of motorsports safety. He spoke about when Old Testament prophet “Elijah handed the mantle off to Elisha. So when you hand that mantle off, be sure that you’re handing it off to someone that shares the same passion that you do. . . . I'm not an island. You can't do any of this by yourself, without a group of people.” 

Who is John Medlen’s Elisha? 

“My cell phone,” he said. “Call me anytime day or night, because you can’t plug you into somebody else. You can take everything that you've experienced for 36 years and someone else would understand it. But if you don't realize it and you don't go through what really happened and it’s just words, it doesn't impact you the same as it is if you experience it yourself. So the experience itself gives you the passion to try to wrestle. When you tell someone about it, they just can’t quite grasp the magnitude of what went on.” 

He said Don Garlits is an example of someone who lived through what he set out to prevent. “Big Daddy” had a horrific accident that cost him part of his foot. Instead of retreating, Garlits tapped into his creativity and designed the rear-engine Top Fuel dragster that marked a revolutionary step in protecting drivers. 

“There,” Medlen said, “was a guy that took something. He didn't want to quit. He was going to go back home and fix it. And look at the cars we have today.” 

Metaphorically speaking, Medlen said, “Sometimes from the big chunks you get a little fallout of little chunks. Right now, we've pretty much captured all the big chunks. So is there going to be maintenance to what we do? Sure. The crew chiefs today and the crews are becoming more and more trained in what they do, because we're getting a larger cross-section of people that have been in the industry long enough to see, ‘I got to watch this’. So I think that the level of safety is going to continue to go up. 

“If something else fails, and Heaven help us,” he said, “I don’t think it’s going to, as the energy goes up, [study] how much stress is in the parts. And then you have to jump all over it. Right now, the cars are good. 

“And as the energy in the car keeps going up, you're going to see it's going to point to, ‘Maybe we need to look at this or that.’ We used to get 80 runs on a rear end. Now we get 30. We got more load into all of these parts, so the energy level, the wear on the materials, goes up. So you’ve got to keep watching, keep raising the envelope. So you got to keep watching. ‘Is anything showing signs? We haven't seen that yet.’ You got to keep watching,” he said. 

“It still boils down to maintenance. When you got a car, whether it’s a dragster or Funny Car, you got to look at it. All these teams do the same thing. When you see a crack in a particular area, ‘Why’d that happen?’ And so you go to other people. These guys are real good about sharing safety information with everybody. No secrets – maybe on the tune-up,” Medlen said with a twinkle in his eye. “I think the level of that is way up here from where it used to be.”  

He said, “The sanctioning body, everybody, has gone a long way from where it was even to the point of better focus on material in the chassis . . . just minor things that you wouldn't consider made a major effect on the driver's seat. 

“We discovered a lot about in the chassis aspect,” Medlen said. “The rule requires an MS 6736 D mill spec. So everybody said, ‘OK. Well, that mill spec must be good.” But in Eric's chassis failure, we found out that none of the tubing fit that. It did not fit the MS 6736 D mill spec because the spec is about this long material composition. And we discovered that that mill spec required us to pull two pieces of tube out of a 500-piece bundle. So my question was ‘What if that doesn’t pass?’ Then we keep pulling material until it does. So we took 100 pieces of material and maybe 11 met the spec, but they pulled it out of a bundle that met the 6736 D mill spec. So technically it was correct, but it wasn't adequate for what we were doing at all. 

“So now the manufacturers, we do it at Schumacher’s and most everybody qualifies every single piece of tubing that goes in these cars. The carbon layers and mechanical properties to the chemistry and that in the industry has gone way, way better than usual. And there again, we didn't know that existed then. But then when you start having failures, you said, ‘Well, maybe there's something wrong with that mill spec.’ The mechanical properties and the chemical composition was correct, except that the range of what was allowable and how you qualified the tube was not acceptable. So now we took basically the same chemistry and basically the same mechanical properties and wanted to make sure that every single tube that goes in that car meets up and rightly so. The last maybe 1,000 pieces of tubing that we got at Schumacher’s, I don’t think we rejected any, and we tested each end of every single piece of tubing. 

“It insures, when you go to sleep at night, that car has the best quality materials you can possibly get. That's what I'm talking about when I say that the diligence of the people who are involved now know more about the nuances of a failure. We didn't know that then. So to keep going with that quest is one side of the page. The other side of the page is don't forget how you got to them. Don't forget about all these things that happened that exposed you to looking.” 

Medlen kept circling back to passion –“the passion in this that drives you to win. It's a passion to make the best parts. The passion drives you to try to succeed. You got to have a sufficient amount of funds to allow you to look at the future, to allow you to try more things, allow you to experiment to a degree, to do more and more research. The value of the price of the tubing by itself is one thing, but the chemical testing and then we have to qualify, adds another degree for the expense of the car. But you have to have that to ensure that the car is correct.” 

And if John Medlen’s curious mind ever is to kick into low gear – if only for a little while, if only long enough to enjoy his view of the Blue Ridge Mountains – he needs to know the cars are correct. 

DYNASTIES HARD TO MAINTAIN  – Dynasties, whether in history or sports, are fascinating to study and dissect and analyze. But they all seem to end. And in drag racing’s 71 years, in general, they’re relatively rare.   

For example, no one in the NHRA’s Funny Car class has achieved consecutive championships in 20 years, not since John Force completed a back-to-back feat in 2001-2002. Ten of Force’s 16 championships came in a row (1993-2002), but since then, the crown has been bestowed on no fewer than 10 different racers. 

Tony Schumacher had his version of a Top Fuel dynasty going, from 2004-2009 – with five of those six consecutive championships with one crew chief, Alan Johnson. It’s remarkable that he has recorded eight with three different crew chiefs (Dan Olson, Johnson, and Mike Green). But if it ever classified as a dynasty, as impressive as it is, it was short-lived (as dynasties go). 

Bob Glidden had 10 Pro Stock championships in all, in rather streaky fashion (1974, 1975, 1978-1980, and 1985-89). His reign ended with five straight. 

And then along came Steve Torrence with his staggering statistics and a Top Fuel sweep of the six 2018 Countdown races. And it looked like the makings of a nitro dynasty. And it has been. But it appears it is coming to an end, with plenty of time for the talented Texan to start a new one if he chooses to do so. 

Torrence, the longtime terror of the Top Fuel field, started this weekend 87 points out of first place. And he said after a Round 2 defeat at Las Vegas two weekends ago, “If we just had to catch Brittany [Force] or Justin {Ashley, the top two ranked racers], that would be one thing, but there are two other drivers ahead of us now. We’ll just go to Pomona and try to end it strong and build some momentum.  I’m really proud of these Capco Boys.  We had some issues this year, but we kept our heads up, and we’re ending the season with a strong car. It’s definitely not how we drew it up. 

“This can be a very humbling sport,” he said.  “We struggled early. But credit Justin and Brittany and AB [Brown] and Mike [Salinas] – in fact, credit everybody in Top Fuel.  There are no more easy outs in this class. And when you’re the champ, you get everybody’s best. That’s the way it is. That’s the way it should be.” 

Torrence shrugged off the disappointment of not earning that fifth consecutive championship, saying, “All we can control is what we do. Our plan is to go out there and win the race.  That’s all we can do.  If we do that (as he has in two of his last three Finals’ appearances), then we’ve given ourselves a chance and, regardless of what happens, we’ll have momentum to carry over into ’23.  With points-and-a-half on the table, we’re just two rounds behind Brittany and Justin and in a dead heat with Mike and Antron. That means it’ll all come down to what happens in qualifying and the first couple rounds. No matter what, there’s nobody I’d rather have with me down the stretch than these Capco Boys. They’ve put us in position to win a championship for the sixth straight year.  I know I’ll have a race car that can win.  We’ll just have to see how it plays out.”  

So if records are made to be broken, then perhaps dynasties are built to be toppled. 

HONORING DAD - Forty years ago, Tripp Shumake scored an upset Funny Car victory at the 1982 Finals, defeating Kenny Bernstein in the showdown after eliminating championship contenders Don Prudhomme and Frank Hawley in earlier rounds. The popular journeyman was playing a spoiler role in the Chief Auto Parts Ford EXP entry for Billy Meyer in what turned out to be the last season finale at Orange County International Raceway. Frank Hawley won the series title, but it was Shumake’s second – and last – victory. 

Then 17 years later – 23 years ago this Sunday, as the sport crowns its champions once again – Shumake was killed by a wrong-way, hit-and-run driver as he rode his motorcycle near his home at Chandler, Ariz. 

This weekend, Travis Shumake, Tripp’s son, will honor his father’s memory and the surprise victory in 1982 with a throwback paint scheme, helmet, and crew uniforms with his Randy Meyer-fielded Top Alcohol Dragster. 

“I grew up watching VHS of my dad’s magical day at the World Finals. I still watch it – regularly,” he said. “I’m just as proud of his other wins and accomplishments, like being in both the Cragar Five-Second Club and the 250 MPH Club. But having the TV coverage and interviews make this race special. He’s been gone 23 years this Sunday, and his finish line interview with Steve Evans is the only place I can go to hear his voice. I get to hear him, see him, and now I’m hoping for my own finish-line interview with [FOX reporter] Amanda Busick. Makes the hairs stand up on my neck.” 

However, Travis Schumake said he isn’t racing here this weekend just for nostalgia’s sake. 

“I’m not just here to honor my dad. I’m here to win,” he said, “and wouldn’t mind facing off with one of the drivers in the hunt for the championship. We’ve got the car. Between me, Hunter [Green], Fiona [Crisp], and Matt [Sackman], this Randy Meyer ‘Team B’ car has been turning on win lights all season long. If the points stayed with the car, this beast would be deep in the points battle.” 

Travis Shumake is deep into learning more about his father and preserving his memory. Not long ago, he finally found time to sort through a treasure trove of Tripp Shumake memorabilia and items that his father had saved. 

“I did get a chance to go through most of it. Found some awesome articles and even some clothes,” he said. “Found a picture of him in his orange helmet with "Tripp" across the top that I had replicated for this weekend's race. Hopefully someday – not in my tiny New York apartment – I have space to properly display things along with the racing memories we are creating as a family.”  

At this point in his relatively new drag-racing career, Shumake isn’t quite sure exactly how he’ll be making those memories as a family, which includes mom Susie and sister Heather. He says he “absolutely” still has the yearning to drive a Funny Car. But he said, “Will you see me in Top Fuel or A-Fuel Funny Car before Nitro Funny Car? Probably. And I hope to get my Top Fuel license in 2023 and see how the A-Fuel category takes shape.” 

The NHRA has approved nitro for the Top Alcohol Funny Car class starting next year, and Shumake said, “Wouldn't that be cool? I remind Randy [Meyer] often that I have my nostalgia license and would happily be his test driver. If that opportunity presents itself, I'd dust my Funny Car boots off in a heartbeat.”  

His Funny Car licensing passes have counted. “My runs stand. NHRA has asked for a few additional solo passes when I am ready,” he said. “Over the past year I've gained a lot of perspective on what happened in Vegas.” He crashed and injured several ribs. Looking back on his mindset at the time, Shumake said, “I'm literally rolling my eyes at myself and saying, ‘Slow down, Travis!’" 

Slow down off the track, he means. Right now, he’s enjoying learning how to go quick and fast from some of the best in the sport – in the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series. 

“I'm learning so much in this category and having a BLAST doing it. It's such a special class full of legends who aren't going anywhere and newcomers trying to fight their way into the pros. It's also full of bad-ass chicks and powerful women. I love me a good TAD lady. They are some of my closest friends on and off the track,” he said. 

“My experience with Randy Meyer could be an article of its own,” Shumake said. “From taking me on when no one else would work with me, to letting me run a gay-pride-themed dragster at his home track, he has put his neck out there for me. And I am forever grateful for some of the tough moments we run into, together. I think we are learning from each other and are both better for it. Change takes time. He isn't just teaching me about the car. He is teaching me about the sport, the business, the emotions. He is teaching me how to survive and thrive in this sport. I look up to him not just as owner and crew chief but also as a father figure. He gives it to you straight, and sometimes it's tough to hear. But it always ends with a hug.” 

So Shumake is growing and assimilating into this sport he never tried before last year. And this New York resident whose previous job was fundraising for a large foundation is understanding that finding financial support is the lifeblood of drag racing, too. 

“I’m chasing funding for 2023, just like everyone else, but am starting to get excited about the future,” he said. “Right now, I’m just enjoying the opportunity to learn from Randy and drive alongside Julie [Naatas]. Add all the marketing help I’ve gotten from Megan [Meyer Lingner] into that mix, and you quickly realize I’ve been training under the best in the business all season long. I hope bringing big names like Sheetz and Envision Rise into the sport shows folks I am serious, committed, and certainly no flash in the pan.” 

In only three national-event appearances, Shumake has demonstrated he has the aptitude to compete in this sport. He qualified among the top three at Charlotte. At Reading, he clocked a career-best semifinal finish after advancing on two holeshots. 

Envision RISE, according to its marketing messaging, “was founded as a modern workforce development platform to create a non-divisive integration and understanding of the relationship between the needs of an organization and the requirements of the actual workforce. The platform provides a voice to the individual and a framework critical to long-term business sustainability.” It uses Organizational Change Management (OCM), Human Resource Management (HRM), and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) “to create a powerful integration and understanding between organizations and their workforce.” 

Joseph Anderson, Envision RISE's founder and CEO, said, "Our partnership with Travis has created a direct path for us to connect in a unique way with the NHRA fan base and our clients. Travis has been a huge supporter of our mission and has worked hard to demonstrate his commitment to becoming a top NHRA driver and an advocate for opportunity derived from hard work and respect.” 

Sheetz is a family convenience-store and coffee-shop chain that’s owned by the Sheetz family and headquartered in Pennsylvania, with locations in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Maryland, Ohio, Virginia, and North Carolina. 

As for a Funny Car ride, Shumake said, “If the funding comes along (which I am working very hard to find) and more importantly the right seat comes along, I would certainly jump at the opportunity.” He said, “I'm a quirky guy, and I want to drive for a team and a sponsor who have my back and believe in me.” 

He has discovered some truths about himself, as well, not just about the sport this year. 

“A year ago, I wanted everyone to like me. That's not possible,” Shumake said. “I've already unknowingly burned a handful of bridges and learned from those moments. Turns out I'm opinionated and a little mouthy.” He made sure to clarify that “the bridges burned do not include Del & Connie Worsham.” He said he has been texting Worsham and that his “favorite stop Saturday night is to see Connie and girls. I consider them family. Del rarely misses one of my passes and stops by to check on me and make sure I am eating lunch and staying hydrated.” 

Being “opinionated and a little mouthy” makes him fit right in the drag-racing community. And being the son of popular Tripp Shumake doesn’t hurt. 



IT’S BOBBY BALDWIN FRIDAY! – Have any Bobby Baldwin gear? Maybe just some bright-blue and white clothing to honor the independent Top Fuel racer who competed from the 1980s through 2001? Well, get it out of the closet and wear it to Auto Club Raceway at Pomona! Maybe sit in “24/24,” Section 24, 24 rows up. That’s where Krista Baldwin has sat here at her hometown racetrack for 29 years, for many years watching her late father race and carrying on the tradition since he passed away unexpectedly in September 2001 from a brain aneurysm. 

Krista Baldwin is a spectator no longer. She’s competing for a spot in the 16-car show, like her dad and her mother’s dad, Chris Karamesines, have done. And at this race, her eighth NHRA national event this year but first at this sentimental and storied venue, her car is sporting the retro look of her dad’s dragster. 

“The last 20 years we have been honoring my dad on Fridays at Pomona,” she said. And it was  no different this year – unless one counts the fact she is honoring his memory by making passes in her own McLeod Racing / Lucas Oil Dragster, one she bought from her grandpa and operates with tuning and guidance from lifelong friend Scott Graham, who happened to be crew chief for Bobby Baldwin. 

She urged fans and friends to “come out to the track and swing by the pit so I can see all of your BB gear. I’m so excited to see everyone!” 

Baldwin said, “Coming home with the home team is a huge win. I have been with Scott since I was born. And now we have the opportunity to work together, like how he and my dad used to work together. We have made some huge changes to the car and the tune-up, and we are on the right path to the elusive 3.7 second run. And hopefully we will achieve that this weekend in front of our friends and family.” 

She works for Paul Lee in her 9-to-5 job and is general manager of his Funny Car team. And both she and Lee have welcomed Mainline Sales, AB&I Foundry, Breen Engineering, Largo Concrete, Fire Safe Group, APSS, and Four Seasons Landscape to their programs. 

Krista Baldwin was born and she grew up just a few miles from the Pomona dragstrip, in Upland, Calif. Bobby Baldwin owned a land-grading business in Upland but grew up just over the Fairplex Drive hill from the track. From his childhood on, he never missed a Winternationals or Finals, either as a spectator or a competitor. 

And his daughter said, “I grew up at Pomona. My childhood was all about watching my dad and my grandpa race Top Fuel, but I especially remember being with my dad at Pomona. One of his last races he attended was the 50th anniversary race in July of 2001 at Pomona. To return to my hometown with a Top Fuel car is a complete dream come true. I would fantasize as a kid of what it will be like to race Pomona, and now I get to actually experience it.” 

She first drove Karamesines’ dragster to get her license in 2020. Last year, she made five races. In 2022, she purchased the team and equipment from her grandfather and expanded her schedule to eight events and two match races. 



RIGHTING SOME OF THE WRONGS – Cruz Pedregon said he and his Snap-on Dodge Funny Car team have a legitimate shot of improving from ninth place to sixth or seventh in the final standings. And his early Friday performance backed that up. 

Pedregon opened qualifying with the first three-second run – a career-best 3.840-second elapsed time (at 322.58 mph) that earned the provisional No. 1 position. 

“We’re proud. All the Snap-on franchisees have been cheering us on for all these years. We want to hold up our end of the bargain,” he said right after exiting his Charger. “The car felt really good. We knew Pomona was going to be good. We tested in Vegas. We’re in test mode right now, but this bodes well for our chances next year. I’m so stunned, to be honest. It is a career best. It hasn’t been our season, but we can finish strong and really make up for a lot of lost ground.” 

He said the points-and-a-half bonus opportunity “gives us an opportunity to right some of the wrongs we've had this year. We're all about trying to finish as high as we can in the points and work on getting a gauge on our clutch program. We plan for that to all come together to get stronger, more consistent runs. We’re ready to finish the season with solid runs and going rounds on the final race day of the ’22 season.” 

Last year he challenged for the championship until the final race and finished fourth overall. This year he placed himself among the top five in the standings for the first half of the season and began the Countdown from eighth place. 

And after that first pass Friday, crew chief John Collins said, “It’s slowly coming together.” 

Assistant crew chief Rip Reynolds might not stay around to enjoy it for a long time. He has said he plans to retire after this race. Lee Beard, invited to join Pedregon late in this season, is expected to stay on board in 2023. 

For now, though, Pedregon, who grew up at Gardena, Calif., said, “It’s my home track, and we want to end the year on a high note for all the partners that support us.” 

CRISTIAN CUADRA JAZZED – Cristian Cuadra, a rising NextGen Pro Stock racer, won’t win the championship this year. Erica Enders sewed that up at Las Vegas two weeks ago. But he did use a semifinal finish there to make a huge move into the top 10 at No. 8. And he said, “To be in the top ten means a lot to me. All of the progress we’ve made this year, and now to be fighting for the No. 8 spot in the championship, it’s amazing for us. If I make it, I think I’ll be the first driver from Mexico to land in the top 10 of the NHRA points standings. I’ve been practicing on my simulator that I have at our shop, just to stay focused on my reactions since all the cars are running really close. Drivers have to stay focused and do the best we can.”