2022 NHRA #READINGNATS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
PROCK BREAKS FIVE-RACE SKID WITH TOP FUEL VICTORY, BIG LEAP IN COUNTDOWN - In less than 17 seconds Sunday at Reading, Pa., Austin Prock morphed from a self-proclaimed “charity” recipient into the racer no Top Fuel competitor has any sympathy for as the NHRA Countdown to the Championship got under way with the Pep Boys Nationals.
With his 3.755-second elapsed time at 329.67 mph on the 1,000-foot Maple Grove Raceway course in the final-round victory over new points leader Justin Ashley, Prock ended his personal streak of five first-round defeats.
He improved from 12th place – last among the title-eligible drivers – to sixth as the Camping World Drag Racing Series heads south to Charlotte’s zMAX Dragway for the Betway Carolina Nationals this coming weekend.
Prock shared the winners circle with Funny Car’s Robert Hight and gave his father a nitro-double day, too. Jimmy Prock is Hight’s longtime crew chief.
“I've dreamt of this day my entire life,” the 27-year-old racer said. “The only thing better could be is if I was sitting in the seat of his race car. But this is really cool for the Prock family. My grandfather's birthday was earlier this week, so to win for Tom Prock, that's extra special. I'm sure he raced back here in the ’70s, in a custom-body Funny Car, so really cool to get it done for the family. I can't wait to go see him.”
In becoming Top Fuel’s ninth winner this season, Prock plowed past Doug Foley, Steve Torrence, and Antron Brown – all of whom were as desperate as he was for a strong showing – before meeting Ashley in the final round.
“It was exactly what we needed, a satisfied Prock said.
With his opening-round exit at Indianapolis two weeks ago, Prock said with a sigh that he had been awarded “the charity spot” in the Countdown field. He was referring to the NHRA’s second-year rule that any driver who doesn’t end the regular season in the top 10 can be included in the Countdown by attending all races and making at least two qualifying passes.
So now he’s in sixth place, a real threat who’s just 74 points off Ashley’s pace.
What’s more, Prock said he believes his rivals – and he knows they’re all plenty tough – will not discount him.
He said he “absolutely” thinks his car is right in the thick of the championship conversation.
“You know what? I’ve stared at the squiggly lines on my dad's computer screen since I could see. So I know enough to be lethal. I definitely couldn’t tune one, but I understand what's going on. And after that test [at Indianapolis recently], I was pretty confident that we were going to come out here swinging, and it absolutely showed the results that we were looking for. We got a nice baseline coming in this weekend, and they executed perfectly, made really smart decisions.
“I did my job. They did their job. The crew didn't make any mistakes,” he said. “And when you have the best sponsors and the best parts and pieces like we do at John Force Racing, you make the right decisions and you end up victorious. It's hard to keep your head up sometimes, and everybody did a pretty good job of that. And now we're walking with a little bit of a pep in our step now.”
He said, “We come into the Countdown sitting 12th, and if we wanted to play for the big trophy at the end of the year, we had to win this weekend. So we did exactly that. And I'm just really proud of this team,” he said. “It's been a trying year, and everybody has kept their heads down and still believed in themselves. You keep that attitude, and you end up with a Wally. So really proud of everyone.
“But I was ready to go another four rounds. It's been so long since I've gone rounds on Sunday,” Prock said, alluding to his career-first victory at the August 2019 race at Seattle. “And after the final round, I was ready to drag it back up there and do it again. But super-cool.”
He said he will be able to savor this victory just enough o make himself want to focus on the Charlotte follow-up.
“We're just going to have a little more confidence rolling in there. It's only going to make us better,” Prock said. “Every weekend we go in there, at least I do, with the same mentality, even when we're testing. I go up there like it's a final round, trying to cut the tree down. So I don't think it's going to hurt us at all. I think, if anything, it's going to benefit us. We got some momentum going and you've been around this sport long enough to where people get on rolls and sometimes they stay on a roll, and this is the perfect time to do it for us.”
Having the Force brain trust at his disposal, to help crew chiefs Joe Barlam and Rahn Tobler, is, he said, “one of the best things about John Force Racing: All the crew chiefs work together, and it obviously showed this weekend. We stayed and tested in Indy, made more laps and boom – the race car’s back in the fight of things. So really proud of everybody at John Force Racing, especially my crew chiefs, opening up the lounge, listening and making the right decisions when it counted because you can get as much help as you want, but if the tuners aren't making the right decisions like they did today, it's worthless. So they're very smart individuals. That's why we hired them in the first place. Joe Barlam and Rahn Tobler are some of the best out here, and it showed today. They made really good decisions all weekend, and hopefully we can do that the rest of the year.
“We're right back in the mix of things,” Prock said. “We went from 12 to six in one race, so who knows what's going to happen the rest of the season? But we did exactly what we needed to do. You couldn't have done it any better other than qualifying first. If we keep running like we do, and I drive like I do, there's no reason we can't end up winning this deal." Susan Wade
ROBERT HIGHT TAKES FIRST RACE IN COUNTDOWN AT MAPLE GROVE WITH OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCE - Following a script is great in theory but a lot of time it doesn’t come to fruition.
That, however, wasn’t the case for Robert Hight.
Hight, out of the John Force Racing stable, came into NHRA’s six-race to the Countdown to the Championship as the points leader and he increased his lead after the first race in the Countdown after a nearly a perfect weekend at the Pep Boys Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway in Reading, Pa.
Hight qualified in the No. 1 position and then cruised to the victory the 60th of his NHRA nitro Funny Car career.
Hight clocked a 3.937-second elapsed time at 328.38 mph to defeat Tim Wilkerson, who had a redlight start in his back-up car, in the finals.
“Well, this is exactly how we scripted it,” Hight said. “The only problem is it's really easy to script a weekend and it's a lot harder to get out there and get the job done. We told ourselves we needed to go out there and qualify well, get points every run, because at the end of the year, a lot of those qualifying points could be the difference between a championship or not. So, A-plus, we did that. And then to go through the guys we went to through today and get the job done. I mean, it's not easy. I mean there's a lot of good race cars. So, we knew that we had to step up and make a good run against him in the final. And then he red lights.
“But your brain does some crazy, crazy stuff. It's like you know that he just left too soon, and I wasn't late. But then your brain starts thinking, ‘oh man, was I late?’ And then you look up at the scoreboard and it's flashing, and it shows that I won. But you still have to drive the race car and get it down there. Tim Wilkerson's a tough competitor. So, this is huge to start out like this, but it's one down, five to go. We really have to have some fun tonight and put this behind us and go focus on Charlotte next week and try to get the job, the same job done again. If you can do that early on here, you're going to put some pressure on these guys.”
Hight had a first-round bye and then knocked off Cruz Pedregon, Matt Hagan, and Wilkerson. He left Reading with an 81-point lead over Matt Hagan in the points standings.
His milestone 60th career win and seventh this season left Hight smiling.
“There was a point where I never thought I'd ever get a win, that I'd ever even get a chance to drive one of these race cars,” Hight said. “So I'm very fortunate. I can say one thing, there's one common denominator on all 60 of those wins and that's the Auto Club of Southern California. And there's not very many race car drivers who can say that they've had the same sponsor for 18 years and 60 wins. And without them, we wouldn't be doing this. It's just plain and simple. They've made this happen.
“So, nothing more that I'd like to do than to win a championship for them for all they've done for us. Pretty amazing. But 60, that's a big number. No one's ever going to get John Force (155 wins). It's just not going to happen. As a competitor, I hate even saying that because you always want to be the best and end up No. 1, but it ain't going to happen. It's impossible. So, (Ron) Capps and I are battling out for second and Hagan's coming up too. I mean he's got a lot of wins. If you could finish your career, No. 2 in all-time wins, and No. 2 in all-time championships, that's a pretty strong career.”
Hight has three world titles on his resume in 2009, 2017 and 2019. He pilots the Automobile Club of Southern California Chevrolet Camaro SS. In addition to his seven wins this season Hight also has three runner-up finishes in the 17 races so far this season.
“Plain and simple, hard work,” Hight said about the key to his success in 2022. “We struggled last year. We were horrible. We just did not get it done. We came off the 2020 year, where we didn't race basically because of COVID, but 2019, we dominated. We had really high hopes when we got back out here to the racetrack and started racing in '21, that we'd pick up right where we left off. And that didn't happen. We had some highs and lows, but really, we focused all winter, (his crew chiefs) Jimmy (Prock) and Chris (Cunningham) and the whole team, on what bit us last year and kind of went back to basics.
“This is a career year. Seven wins already. That's unheard of. If somebody would've told me at the beginning of the year that any Funny Car driver would have seven wins, I'd have said, ‘you're crazy.’ But seven wins isn't going to get the championship. It's going to take more than that. We're going to have to get even more than that and keep this rolling to win this championship. This is just getting started and there's a lot of really, really good race cars. But I have to give the Auto Club Chevy, the whole team an A-plus for what we accomplished here in Reading.”
Hight did address the concentration he needs to have at the starting line in what he hopes is a championship run.
“The cars are way too evenly matched. You're seeing cars that are separated by thousandths of a second. Matt Hagan and I... a perfect example in second round at Indy,” he said. “We both ran 3.86 and we both had 0.50 lights. And I got the win and had I had a 0.65 (light), which if you averaged 0.65 all year in a Funny Car, you're going to be No. 1, that's going to be the best reaction time average. But I would have been going home. That kind of gave me a wake-up call, taught me a lesson. We do have to focus. And to me focus means just being relaxed. A lot of it is having confidence in your team and your car and everybody, it is way easier for me to go up and do my job when I don't have to pull a rabbit out of the hat.”
Hight also was pleased his teammate Austin Prock won the Top Fuel crown in Reading. Jimmy Prock is Austin’s father.
“It's teamwork and I think this is the best four-car team we've ever had at JFR,” Hight said. “And when I say that it's not based on results. It's based on everybody working together and not having egos, putting everything aside, listening, and helping each other. And that it just showed, I mean, you had Dave Grubnic, Jimmy Prock and (Rahn) Tobler and (Joe) Barlam out there Tuesday testing at Indy, and they turned that thing around and that's how we operate. That's how you have to operate. If you want to win championships and win races, that's how you have to operate. So, it's really cool to see Austin back in the hunt here and to get a win. I've doubled up before with Brittany, pretty cool to double up with him, and really special that he gets to double up with his dad.”
There are five races left in the Countdown with the next one being the Betway NHRA Carolina Nationals Sept. 23-25 at zMax Dragway in Charlotte, N.C., and then the Midwest Nationals Sept. 30 through Oct. 2 in St. Louis.
“Yeah, I love the way NHRA put this schedule together,” Hight said. “You get the first three right out of the way. Bam, bam, bam. And especially if you have a weekend like we had in here in Reading and you carry that momentum another five days from now, we're going to be doing this again. That's exactly what you want. And even if you're doing bad, you want to get right back out there and redeem yourself. From here forward, it's not going to get any easier. It's just not. It's going to be tough. We went down the track, all seven runs, very, very respectable. Seven runs and if we want to win a championship, we got to do it again and again and again.” Tracy Renck
ERICA ENDERS CAPTURES FIRST CAREER WIN AT MAPLE GROVE TO START COUNTDOWN - Erica Enders’ stellar 2022 NHRA season hit the pause button at the U.S. Nationals on Sept. 5.
Fast-forward to the next race – the Pep Boys Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway in Reading, Pa., and Enders’ highlight reel was rolling again.
Enders won for the seventh time this season by defeating her Elite Motorsports teammate Troy Coughlin Jr. in the final round of the first race in the six-race Countdown to the Championship.Enders clocked a 6.582-second lap at 209.72 mph to edge Coughlin’s 6.601-second elapsed time at 209.56.
“It was an amazing day really,” Enders said. “Ever since we set foot on this property, Bo Butner went to No. 1 on Friday, and we were No. 2 and after that run on Friday, every single time we let the clutch out and went down the race track we were low. I. think we accumulated every point here but one and that was definitely our goal coming in.
“This Countdown is going to be a dogfight as it is every single year. Giving up that 200-plus point lead coming in kind of sucks, but it is what it is. It was a pretty substantial lead, but we all play by the same rules, and we’ve won with it, and we have won without it so I’m just thankful for the success we have had. We know we have to capitalize on every moment and execute perfectly and we did just that (Sunday) so I’m really proud of my guys.”
This was Enders’ 40th win of her career and the seventh this season. It also is the first time she has won in Reading. She came in as the points leader in the Countdown and left town with an 81-point lead over second place Greg Anderson, the reigning world champion.
Enders has four NHRA Pro Stock world championships on her resume in 2014-15 and 2019-20.
“My guys really rally,” she said. “They work hard, and we try to prepare the best that we can when we leave the shop to turn win lights on and again, we executed perfectly (Sunday).”
Enders’ victory march consisted of wins over Alan Prusiensky, Matt Hartford, Kyle Koretsky and Coughlin. She had the low elapsed time of every round.
“It is definitely special,” said Enders about her inaugural win in Reading. “It was a goal I wrote down on Jan. 1 this year that I wanted to win at the tracks we had not won at before and we started off on the right foot in Pomona (Calif.) this year. We won the World Finals, but we had never won the Winternationals and that was extra cool because it was the 900th Pro Stock race. Sonoma (Calif.) is on my list every single year and it had evaded us for 18 years and we got it done there and then we came here to Reading (and got it done).
“I’m thankful that we were able to capitalize on it. It is hard to win a round, let alone a race. These guys are super competitive, and it is super challenging to drive one.”
When asked if she and her team were trying to send a statement in the first race of the Countdown, Enders didn’t flinch.
“Absolutely,” she said. “Hands down that was my goal. You never know when it is going to be your last and you want to do the best that you can every single time. Being a human, I’m the biggest variable. My guys give me a great race car week-in-and-week-out and sometimes I flubber and sometimes they do, but when our backs are against the wall, we seem to perform. It was definitely awesome to win and I’m definitely super stoked to start the Countdown out on the right foot. With a 20-point lead coming in here, that’s only one round of racing. We accumulated eight points in qualifying and that was almost half a round and we got them all (Sunday) in eliminations. I’m proud of that and we just have to continue the trend. There are five (races) left and anything can happen. I’m a blessed girl.”
Enders acknowledged gaining momentum in race one in the Countdown was a huge boost.
“As we all know, momentum is huge in any sport and we hopefully we can carry it,” Enders said. “To start off on the right foot and get that jump on everybody, I would rather do that than be battling to make a comeback as the races close out at the end of the year. To have an all-Elite Motorsports final round was pretty awesome, a repeat of Seattle and I was glad to get some revenge on TJ because he busted us there. It was just a great weekend.”
During her post-race press conference, Enders addressed who she had dedicated the race win to – Royce Freeman. Freeman passed away July 9 at the age of 83.
“Courtney (her sister) and I didn’t really have grandparents growing up and he (Royce Freeman, Richard Freeman, the owner of Elite Motorsports, father) was kind enough to adopt us,” Enders said. “I have been with Elite for 10 years now and he was kind of the only grandpa we had. He was a huge staple in our pit area and anybody who knew him, he was very vocal, a lot of fun and you probably needed a beeper around when he talked because he liked to swear a lot. He also always had a cigar in his mouth. He had a great heart and he’s a big part of our organization and this weekend he would have been 84 and I wanted to get (that win) for him.” Tracy Renck
‘DADDY’ GLADSTONE JUMPS OUT TO PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE LEAD WITH READING VICTORY - Pro Stock Motorcycle racer Joey Gladstone was euphoric about winning the opening race of the six-event NHRA Countdown to the Championship Sunday afternoon at Maple Grove Raceway, near Reading, Pa.
It came on daughter Olivia’s second birthday.
It gave him the points lead.
It happened at the expense of both Matt and Angie Smith, the Nos. 1 and 2 qualifiers along the way. Gladstone replaced Matt Smith as the points leader, and he defeated Angie Smith in the final round. “And day that you can beat one Smith is a good day. If you beat two Smiths, that's a big deal,” he said following his third victory (and third of the season).
But as exciting as Sunday’s achievement was (“This is in the playoffs. So that's big. It's good to get back right,” he said), Gladstone knew that probably not every race will to end as happily as today’s did – with a 6.835-second, 196.93-mph triumph over red-lighting Angie Smith. He knows this Countdown will be a hard-fought battle.
“It seems like Matt was a pretty strong force, especially at Indy and what he was doing this weekend here in qualifying. It's like, man, this Countdown is going to be rough. So to be able to get a little bit of an edge going into the next couple of races is awesome. We're probably going to need it, because he hauls butt everywhere he goes. So it's going to be tough,” Gladstone said.
“Everybody out in this class right now is so tough. Everybody's a contender,” he said on the eve of the anniversary of team owner Cory Reed’s nasty on-track accident at Charlotte while racing against him.
“So I'm very proud of my team. I'm very proud of my tuner. We kept our heads cool. We didn't really make it apparent, but we had a bit of an issue in the semis. The bike kind of broke up a little in first gear, kind of like it was doing in Indy. So we knew what to look for. We went back, changed what we thought we needed to change and it ended up working out,” he said.
“So to win Reading . . . today is my daughter Olivia's second birthday. So we had that on the back of the bike. It was just a really special day. As the day goes on, how memorable will this be if we can do this on her birthday. So that part is cool.
“This is probably a little bit more special than the first one. The first one is extremely special, but to do this, to win on Olivia's birthday. It's not like yesterday was her birthday – we won on her birthday today,” Gladstone said. “So it's something I'll never forget. We’ll have to make sure we get a lot of pictures and stuff because it's a memory that I don't want her to forget. I know she probably won't remember it, but I'm sure with enough pictures . . . we can reminisce on it later in life.”
This was a homecoming of sorts for Gladstone, as well.
“I'm from Westchester, Pennsylvania, originally, before I moved to Delaware. So I grew up here. I was a track rat. I was the one that would ride my bicycle around until security told me stop. It's really cool to come full circle in this racetrack. And God Bless the Koretskys for buying this place and investing in our sport. We need people like you.”
He said, “My first time here was at a NHRA regional event. I was two weeks old. My parents brought me. This was the first track I ever went to. And like I said, we only live like 35 minutes away from here. So the few times a year that we did get to race, we would race here, Cecil County, Atco, Englishtown, places like that. But we spent the most time here. The Nationals is really where - here is where – I fell in love with the bikes. I do remember being 12 or 13 years old at the Nationals here and walking around to the Pro Stock Bike pits – because I was really small, so I wanted to race Pro Stock Bike –
and we were able to talk to people like Blake Gann and George Bryce, and we asked them questions like, ‘How do you get involved in it?’ and stuff like that. They actually gave me really good advice. They said, ‘Go get a motorcycle, go bracket racing, and work your way up through it, and you'll get here,’ and it worked.”
To earn his first championship, Gladstone said, “It's going to take good runs and good lights, just consistent, good decisions by whoever is going to win it. It's way too early to see what the trend is going to be now, but you guys saw what Matt did in Indy. A couple of people falter and he gets points and a half and goes blast right back into the points lead. So anything can happen. I'm just going to go one race at a time. If at the end of it, if we get the championship, that's killer. But as of right now, these race wins are sweet enough.” Susan Wde
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK - MORRISON’S TEAM GOES EXTRA MILE . . . MAKE THAT 650 MILES; 15 YEARS OF COUNTDOWN STATS FAVOR TOP SEEDS; SOME LIKE INCLUSIONARY RULE
LEVERICH TEAM MAKES GIGANTIC EFFORT TO RACE – Sometimes the smallest teams make the mightiest efforts and show the biggest hearts. The family-owned Leverich Racing team demonstrated that this weekend at the Pep Boys NHRA Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway near Reading, Pa.
After Joe Morrison set his career-best elapsed time and speed (3.903 seconds, 313.58 mph) in taking the provisional No. 9 spot in the Countdown-opener’s line-up Friday evening, the supercharger on his Right2Breathe Dragster backfired.
In an instant, Morrison said, “A great moment became an interesting moment. It sucks that the wing broke. Sucks that the injector broke. But we managed to keep the car in one piece. And usually when the car’s in one piece, the driver’s in one piece.”
With that, the longtime independent team – making only its third appearance of the season – faced a gargantuan task of repairing the engine damage and replacing the collapsed front wing. Because they have fewer resources than the bigger-budgeted teams, the Leveriches needed help. And that’s when they discovered, or at least were reminded of, their most precious resource: true friends.
The Barry and Todd Paton Family, in whose car Jeff Chatterson is making his Top Fuel debut this weekend, offered a fresh front wing. And the Ant Hill Mob Drag Racing Team of Smax Smith and son Aidan Heatley-Smith swung into action north of the border, in Ontario, helping orchestrate an international relief effort, of sorts.
Before Morrison and the team could watch the replay, Heatley-Smith said, “we were already offering up our wings and injector to get them back on track!”
The Patons stepped in to solve the front-wing issue. But Gary Leverich “was searching around until almost 11 p.m., looking for an injector, but no one had one or would lend one,” Heatley-Smith said. “Luckily, we had a guy who could drive the stuff to at least meet him at the border at 4:30 this morning to get him our stuff – after I was at the shop at 3:30, unbolting everything they needed!”
Heatley-Smith said he and his crew were more than happy to make the effort: “Gary Leverich helps us immensely with our Top Fuel operation in Canada. The racing community and the Leverich team is like family, and we will do anything to keep them on the track.”
So Leverich drove seven hours through the night to meet Smax Smith team member Dan Faries at Niagara Falls and retrieve the needed parts. Then Leverich had another seven-hour haul to get back to Maple Grove Raceway. He wouldn’t arrive in time for his crew to make the fixes and get to the starting line for the second qualifying session early Saturday afternoon. So the plan switched to the Q3 session. However, that came up too quickly for them to be able to make a pass.
Morrison wasn’t worried. “We're definitely in,” he said. “We're qualified, and no one can bump us out, because there's no one to bump us out. So we're good.”
The No. 14 position will go to Morrison, and he’ll take on No. 3 qualifier Mike Salinas in the first round of eliminations Sunday.
Morrison said no one knows yet quite why the wing collapsed.
“It was this really odd structural failure. It was just re-certified. It was 100-percent legal and legit. We were going 300 miles an hour when it failed,” he said.
The team went to great lengths to make sure the dragster got back on the racetrack – “for a bunch of reasons, really,” Morrison said. The first was “for the love of the sport. We don’t get out here much. To not give it everything we’ve got is just unacceptable. On top of that, we’re here at home, doing a tribute to [former team cylinder-head specialist] Mickey Majors,” who passed away Wednesday.
“Plus, my passion for helping people with lung disease – we’re here promoting Right2Breathe (his non-profit organization dedicated to helping those with lung illnesses and raising awareness for the importance of early detection for lung cancer) and the Temple Lung Center. Temple Lung is one of the best in the country. Temple University [has] a teaching hospital, and it’s one of the premier transplant hospitals. For us to be partnered with Temple Lung is a big deal.”
He said, “I was just not going to stop last night until we found a way.” Besides, he didn’t want to pass up the guaranteed opportunity to race Sunday. The field has just 15 cars.
Morrison said replacing the front wing was the hardest assignment, because “you can’t get them right now. There’s a wait. And people aren’t really likely to let them go unless they know they don’t need them.”
“Talk about dedication!” Heatley-Smith said. “They deserve some type of award and recognition for their efforts. And can’t wait to see them back on track this afternoon, dipping into the 3.80s! I don’t believe there is anyone more dedicated to this sport than the Leveriches.” He said because few people “get to see the behind-the-scenes into what it takes to get these cars to and on the track,” he wanted to make sure people knew about the heroic actions by the Ant Hill Mob organization and Morrison’s team.
Incidentally, Heatley-Smith said he is working to become licensed in Top Fuel like his dad Smax Smith and that “we have lots of plans over the off-season to get the car ready for when we can do some NHRA stuff.” Because of COVID restrictions in the past two and a half years, they haven’t been able yet to show off their new dragster in the United States. “Fingers crossed for next season,” he said.
WHAT DO COUNTDOWN STATS HINT FOR 2022? – On the eve of Friday’s opening of the Pep Boys NHRA Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway, near Reading, Pa., Top Fuel racer Shawn Langdon said, “The season has come down to six races now.
“We start with three races in a row. And if you can get off to a good start, then anything can happen,” he said. “You want to be in contention going into the last race of the season.”
And that sums up the Countdown to the Championship, which debuts this weekend – and the baseline strategy for 48 drag racers going for a series title.
Eight-time NHRA Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher was counting points unapologetically long before the Countdown to the Championship cutoff race Labor Day weekend at Indianapolis.
And he clearly said a racer’s starting spot in the Countdown order is significant: “Getting moved up a few spots to start the Countdown does matter. I’ve won championships and I’ve lost championships by less than one round. So don’t kid yourself into thinking that where you start the Countdown doesn’t matter,” Schumacher said.
He was counting points – just as he was losing them, along with two positions in the playoffs. The sanctioning body fined him $20,000 and penalized him 50 points for mechanical oversights at the August race at Brainerd, Minn. That dropped him from eighth place to 10th for the start of the six-race playoff.
At the close of the so-called regular season, points spreads vanish and the title-eligible drivers are separated by 10-point increments – except the leader, who has a 20-point edge on the No. 2 seed. So everyone is bunched up to begin the first elimination rounds in the 2022 Countdown get under way at 10:30 (Eastern Time) Sunday morning.
So it pays to use every little opportunity to pick up a point or two, no matter how trifling it might seem at the moment. And high placement on the starting grid usually pays off. Across the four pro classes in the Camping World Drag Racing Series, the No. 1-seeded driver has won the championship 25 times – by far the best berth to produce champions.
If statistics remain true, the odds favor Brittany Force (Top Fuel), Robert Hight (Funny Car), Erica Enders (Pro Stock), and Matt Smith this year. They’re the points leaders.
The No. 2 slot has produced two champions in each class but Funny Car. Hight won the second of his three titles in 2017, starting from the No. 2 position. The Nos. 3, 4, and 5 starters have had scattered success, and the sixth and seventh places have spring-boarded a few to championships.
But no one in any class has won from either an eighth- or ninth-place launch. So take note, Shawn Langdon and Doug Kalitta in Top Fuel and Cruz Pedregon and Tim Wilkerson in Funny Car. (Pedregon isn’t playing numbers games. He said, “Our second season starts now. Throughout my career, I have always finished strong, and I believe we are shaping up to have that happen again this year.”)
Same goes for Pro Stock drivers Camrie Caruso and Matt Hartford, as well as Jerry Savoie and Marc Ingwersen in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class.
No one in Top Fuel has become champion when starting from the fourth, fifth, seventh, or 10th position, either. That would preclude Steve Torrence (No. 4) from earning a fifth consecutive championship and doesn’t help No. 5 Josh Hart, No. 7 Leah Pruett, or No. 10 Schumacher, either. Torrence isn’t intimidated. He said his team has been “bad to the bone for five years, and I think we’ll have something for the Countdown.”
And impersonal stats don’t deter Hart, the impressive sophomore driver, who said following the U.S. Nationals, “We made the Countdown for the first time, and this is just the beginning. I told all my guys in our team meeting this was only my 30th race in my Top Fuel career. I am super- blessed to be doing this, and we want to keep getting better. I am building this team for the long-haul.”
Funny Car’s other “unlucky” starting position is sixth – sorry, JR Todd.
Two John Force Racing drivers, Brittany Force and Hight, have come from sixth and 10th, respectively, to earn championships. Eddie Krawiec (2008) and L.E. Tonglet (2010) have vaulted from the No. 7 starting spot to take the crown. Matt Hagan won his 2014 Funny Car title from seventh place, as well.
As for gobbling up valuable qualifying credit, Pro Stock’s Enders benefited most in qualifying from the points-and-a-half system at the recent U.S. Nationals, dominating with 17. Funny Car’s Robert Hight bagged 15 and Ron Capps 11. Justin Ashley, with 11, and Steve Torrence, with 10, led in the Top Fuel division. Bikers Matt Smith and Angelle Sampey each had 13. But none of that altered anyone’s places in the standings.
Still, those points could make a difference as the Countdown progresses.
Schumacher has won the Top Fuel championship by the sport’s largest margin (415 points over runner-up Larry Dixon in pre-Countdown 2005) and its narrowest margin (two points over Dixon in 2009). Steve Torrence earned his second of four Top Fuel titles in 2019 by three points over Doug Kalitta, and Antron Brown had only a seven-point margin on Schumacher at the end of the 2012 season.
Those close ones aren’t limited to the Top Fuel class. Jack Beckman captured his lone Funny Car crown in 2012, acing out Ron Capps by a mere two points. And just eight points separated Funny Car champion Gary Scelzi from runner-up Capps in 2005 and Robert Hight from second-place Beckman in 2019. In Pro Stock, Greg Anderson was on the wrong side of two tight championship chases, losing to Jason Line by three points in 2016 and Bo Butner by seven the following year.
From 2007-2010, four different racers won the Pro Stock Motorcycle series championship by six points or fewer (Hector Arana by two over Krawiec in 2009, Tonglet by four over Andrew Hines in 2010, Krawiec by five over Chris Rivas in 2008, and Matt Smith by six over Chip Ellis in 2007).
Top Fuel contender Ashley probably said it best: “We wanted to go into the Countdown in first place, like everyone else, but we also really wanted to be in a solid position to make a run at the championship if we weren’t No. 1. Coming into the playoffs in third place is a good spot, but what I learned about the Countdown is the margin for error is so small. Every team is running well, and we have to be on our A Game week in and week out. It is six races that is still a marathon, not a sprint.”
SOME RACERS DEFEND ‘BILLY TORRENCE RULE’ – In high school, the prized accolades on Awards Day were honors such as Most Likely To Succeed and Outstanding Athlete. Few were insufferably arrogant because of their Perfect Attendance certificate.
That’s kind of the same prestige that comes with the NHRA’s inclusionary rule that allows non-top-10 drivers who competed in every regular-season race and made two qualifying passes. The slang for it is “The Billy Torrence Rule,” because the part-time Capco Contractors Dragster driver proved in 2019 and 2020 that a racer doesn’t have to compete at every single “regular-season” event to achieve top-10 status.
Torrence raced at only 10 of 18 regular-season events in 2019 and placed fifth in the final standings. In 2020, a schedule scrambled because of various local pandemic-related restrictions, the NHRA scrapped the Countdown. But Billy Torrence continued his part-time agenda and wound up third.
Torrence himself dubbed the practice the “Loser Appreciation Program.”
Some wholeheartedly believe his label was spot-on. Some don’t. Regardless of anyone’s opinion, eight additional racers in Top Fuel, Funny Car, and Pro Stock are in the title chase along with the 10 who qualified in each of the four professional Camping World Drag Racing Series classes.
The rule easily could have been called the “Mike Salinas Rule,” for the Top Fuel owner-drive skipped three races in 2019, qualified fifth for the Countdown, and wound up No. 7.
Or it could have been branded as the “Erica Enders Rule.” The Pro Stock star bypassed the Western Swing in 2014 and went on to win the Pro Stock championship. (She said that happened because team owner Richard Freeman decided to go on vacation and wasn’t a matter of Countdown strategy. “That was kind of one of those lucky deals,” she said. “It was written in the stars . . . it was God's plan . . . however you want to look at it . . . but that's not something that I would recommend.”)
In 2019, Billy Torrence’s son, the four-time and current Top Fuel king Steve Torrence, said, “How’s it going to look if my dad goes out and wins the championship and he raced 16 of the 24 races?” Apparently the NHRA wondered that, too, and enacted the rule.
But not everyone dislikes or pooh-poohs it.
Traditionally, only 40 drivers – 10 in each of the four Camping World Drag Racing Series – would be vying for championships. The extra eight this year are beneficiaries of the two-year-old policy that allows into the Countdown any racer outside the top 10 who have competed at every race and have made at least two qualifying runs.
“This is the first time where we’ve had a Countdown with more than 10 cars fighting for the Top Fuel title. There are 12 teams battling it out this year, and that’s exciting,” Tony Schumacher said.
“And I’m one of those that believes this is the right decision,” he said. “If a team shows up, runs every race, makes a few qualifying runs, they deserve to be there. We are fortunate that we didn’t get in that way. We got into the Top 10, and stayed in the Top 10, based on the way we performed, and we’re proud of that.”
He's 10th, but Clay Millican and Austin Prock got the Perfect Attendance pass. Before NHRA put the rule in place, Millican knows the sinking feeling when a team misses the cut by a few points. So who doesn’t enjoy a reprieve?
Prock has entered the Countdown on the heels of six opening-round defeats, and he said at Indianapolis two weeks ago, “Unfortunately, I’m getting used to this going-out-first-round thing. Hopefully we can turn this thing around in the Countdown. Looks like we’re getting the charity spot, and we can hurt some feelings then.”
The lone Funny Car beneficiary is Jim Campbell. This marks the second season he has been added to the Countdown mix at No. 11.
Last year and this year, the Jim Dunn Racing driver expressed no shame in taking the alternative route. (No, I love it,” he said.) He said he followed the rules and therefore was not only entitled to compete for the championship but happy and proud to have the chance.
“This is our second year in the Countdown. We're excited. Our car has been running much better this year. I've been doing a better job in the seat, and just everything’s coming together. For Jim Dunn Racing and [sponsors] DiPinto and KGC and Blaze and all the people that put their time and their money and their effort into this, we couldn't be more excited to get in,” Campbell said.
“I don't care how,” he said. “So we'll work our way up. You got to get in the Countdown to play the Countdown.
“We were in the Countdown for many weeks, and then we dropped down a little bit and then we came back up,” Campbell said. “I actually like the rule, because everybody that comes out here every race should be part of the Countdown. I think that's only fair. And then from there, let it be decided who wins the championship. But there's a lot of money spent out here, a lot of people's time, hours, and dedication. So to have a shot at the championship, the top 10, the top five, whatever it may be, more power to them.”
He noted that Blake Alexander, who secured the No. 10 Countdown place for Jim Head Racing, opted out of this first event, at Reading. Campbell said, “Blake's not here this week, so we'll be back in the top 10 without the Billy Torrence Rule.
“Blake got in, but he's not here this weekend. So I will take over No. 10 and he'll go to eleven. That doesn't mean he's still not in the Countdown. So, as he comes to the races, they'll just have to play catch-up and win a round or something like that. And we'd like to go a couple of rounds and pad that lead a little bit.”
Campbell said he understands the arguments against it, but it’s benefiting him, so at the moment he favors it: “Let's face it, some of the really good cars had 300-, 400-point leads. Well, there's no way that a guy in 10th place is even going to come close to that when you reset the points. It is kind of a Catch-22. And I understand that you're kind of penalizing the cars that have done outstanding all year and tightening back up. Those cars have been consistent all year and probably will be consistent through the Countdown.
“What it does,” he said, “is let teams that have been out here and run every race have its shot, maybe not winning the championship, but definitely get it in the top five, which would be a good thing. Our goal is to win a race, No. 1, just to win a race and absolutely to get in the top five or above. But just to be in the Countdown itself is an honor.”
Some racers have said it provides some shine when they present a sponsorship deck or proposal. Campbell said, “I don't think it hurts. I think anytime you can say, ‘We're one of the top 10 or top 12 or top 15 cars in the world, it's always a benefit or a plus. We're not a scrub car. I don't think there's any scrub cars out here anymore. Everybody's good. Anybody can win a race out here at any time. You just never know what's going to happen when you stomp on the throttle of one of these things. Sometimes luck is on your side, sometimes it's not. And sometimes it's just a good, old-fashioned drag race, and you just get outrun.”
Top Fuel contender Justin Ashley, ranked No. 3, said he would consider one of the non-top-10 racers a true champion if he were to win.
“It's legitimate because he's in. The rules state that is one way to qualify for the Countdown. Obviously it's not ideal. You want to be in the top ten. Your goal still is to be in the top ten and put yourself in the best position to win,” Ashley said. “But truth be told, if they start 11 and 12 and if they are up there around Pomona, competing for the championship, they deserve to be there, anyway.
“So, that's something that we just have to focus on, controlling what we can. It just adds two more really good cars to the mix, but that's been the way it's been all season, anyway. Austin and Clay both have great cars and from our perspective,” he said. “It doesn't affect anything that we do. It doesn't affect our approach. Our approach is the same in the Countdown as it was during the regular season: run as fast as we can in whatever lane that we're in and take it one round at a time.”
The biggest beneficiary this season is Elite Motorsports. Freeman’s Pro Stock operation added four non-qualified, non-top-10 racers: Bo Butner, the 2017 champion, who was 11th at the cutoff, and the Cuadra family trio of Fernando Sr. and Fernando Jr. and Cristian. Pro Stocker Deric Kramer also parlayed his “sub-10th” spot into a Countdown opportunity.
In the previous 14 years of the Countdown, only six racers across all four pro classes have earned the crown from a below-fifth-place start. Funny Car’s Robert Hight is the only one to win a title from 10th place. No one has won from eight or ninth. Matt Hagan (Funny Car) and Pro Stock Motorcycle racers Eddie Krawiec and L.E. Tonglet have come from seventh. Brittany Force won from the sixth slot in Top Fuel, and so did biker Matt Smith once.
So being allowed into the championship-eligible field, even with points reset in increments of 10 to manipulate the drama, chances of winning the title are slim. One positive is that the “Below-10s” can compete with a purpose greater than a spoiler role.
Pro Stock’s Butner naturally has changed his opinion. Today he says he’s “grateful for that rule” but confessed that he disliked it six and seven years ago, when he had excelled and formed a sizeable lead.
No matter what opinions are being debated about it, Top Fuel racer Doug Kalitta was right. He said, “Everyone has a shot at the championship in the Countdown.” In this everybody-gets-a-trophy age, it offers more “Wouldn’t it be cool if . . .” moments and more scenarios. And that’s the kind of drama the NHRA had in mind when it introduced the Countdown in 2007.
GRAY BACK IN A PRO STOCK CAR BUT NOT FOR LONG, FORCE HAS 800 STORIES AS HE REFLECTS ON 800TH START, BURKART JUGGLING DREAM AND NIGHTMARE, CANADIAN VETERAN MAKES TOP FUEL DEBUT
GRAY SUBS FOR COVID-STRICKEN KRAMER - For the second straight year here at Reading, Pa.’s Maple Grove Raceway, a Camping World Drag Racing Series title contender has been sidelined with COVID and has sent a substitute to kick off the Countdown to the Championship.
Tommy Johnson Jr. won the Funny Car trophy while filling in for Matt Hagan last fall. This time, 2018 Pro Stock champion Tanner Gray is driving the Get Biofuel Chevy Camaro at these Pep Boys NHRA Nationals for No. 11-seeded Deric Kramer, who tested positive for the virus Wednesday. Whatever points Gray earns this weekend will remain with Kramer, who received a medical waiver.
Gray, who at age 18 became the NHRA’s youngest-ever champion, left drag racing following his eight-victory 2018 season to compete in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. He raced Thursday night, finishing 17th (just behind younger brother Taylor, who used to volunteer with the Torrence Racing team) in the UNOH 200 at Tennessee’s Bristol Motor Speedway. And with barely any sleep, Gray slid into the driver’s seat Friday for Kramer.
It was a bit of a rude welcome-back for Gray. He experienced severe tire shake immediately after his launch from the starting line and was last among the 20 Pro Stock entrants in Friday’s provisional lineup.
Gray scrambled on short notice to help Kramer.
“Didn’t have a whole lot of time. Luckily, just kind of worked out where our schedules aligned where I could race Bristol last night and then come over here – when I have, like, two Thursday night races a year. So it literally happened on the perfect weekend. But it's unfortunate Deric has COVID, especially with it being the first race in the countdown and having to miss here on unfortunate circumstances. Hopefully he gets better soon.”
One of Kramer’s crew members said the driver from Sterling, Colo., is “coughing and hacking” but otherwise feels “OK.”
Gray said it’s “cool to get the opportunity to try and do it again,” despite sympathizing that Kramer “has to miss the first race here.” Gray said, “I was surprised to get the call. Deric and I obviously raced against each other here and knew each other just from being out here. I wouldn't say that we were close, but I've always respected Deric a lot.”
Before making his Friday night run, Gray did admit, “I'm nervous. Yeah, I'm really nervous. But I don't know – it should be fun. I warmed it up a little bit ago for the first time, so that helped a little bit. I mean, I've been very disconnected from this side of things for a little bit now, just because I've been trying to focus on the truck stuff, but when you disconnect yourself from something like that, you feel like you kind of lose touch with it. Being able to sit there and warm it up kind of helped some of the butterflies and whatnot. [I] just probably have some pretty low expectations for myself. We'll see where we stack up here after the first run. Hopefully I can just go and make a decent run in the first round here and kind of get the feel back under my belt and hopefully not be too far off.”
The goal, he said, was to “just kind of try to get down the track in Q1.”
Fans who are hoping this is a signal that Gray will return to NHRA Pro Stock racing will be disappointed.
“I doubt it,” he said about the possibility of a return to the sport in which his father Shane and grandfather Johnny excelled before him.
“No, I'm just filling in, trying to help them out. I enjoy it, but I love what I'm doing,” the third-year David Gilliland Racing Ford driver said. “I don't feel like I'm where I'm at and haven't had the success that I want to have in the Truck Series, so it's something I still work at really hard. I just want to stay focused on that. But [I’m] just grateful to have the opportunity to come out here and help out the Kramers and get to see some good friends and try to drive the car again.”
Gray and NHRA officials worked together hastily to renew his Pro Stock license, and Gray said, “Luckily I was able to get that done pretty quick.”
At the time Gray left NHRA competition, he said the sanctioning body didn’t market him as much as he thought it should have.
With a wry smile, he said, “Yeah, I was young and said a lot of stupid things back then. I still feel like that there's definitely missed opportunities. But you're going to have that in everything you do. I feel like what I was saying and how I was saying it was probably the wrong way, I guess. Probably was a poor choice of words, but yeah, younger then and probably a little bit immature. I feel like I've grown up a lot. Yeah, I don't know, I mean, it's tough for me to really comment on it.”
His return to drag racing was so quickly arranged that he said, “I have not talked to hardly any drivers. Greg [Anderson] and them are here. I'm running one of Greg's motors. I've been really good friends with Greg. Me and Cody [Anderson, Greg’s son] grew up together for a long time. Cody and I have been best friends since we were 10 years old, so it's cool to be back. And this is obviously the first time I've ever drag-raced anything outside of my family's stuff, so the aspect a little bit different, but it's cool to be able to do it for Greg and KB Racing.”
For Gray, adjusting to everything in the NASCAR Truck Series has been more difficult than it was with the NHRA Pro Stock class.
“I think the learning curve itself has definitely been steeper for me over there. Over here, I excelled fairly quick and seemed to pick up on things and just naturally was pretty good. I was surrounded by my family. I was immersed in it, and I watched it for many years. And going over there, I still feel like I'm talented enough to do it. I feel like I am just not good at it.” Gray said. “I feel like there's a lot of places that we show speed and everything else. It's just about putting the little pieces together and having some consistency. I think that's what I just have to keep working on striving to get better at.
“I think right now we're trying to figure out what works for me,” he said. “We just made a crew chief swap a few races ago, and I'm only three races in with him so far, and he and I are just trying to learn each other and really just he's trying to figure out what I need. I'm trying to figure out how he wants the ship to run. The only way to put it is I just got to get better, need more consistency.”
He said he plans to return to the Truck Series in 2023, and he said he’ll zero in on unfinished business.
Gray said he’ll be “just trying to narrow in on some stuff and get everything locked down, but pretty sure I'll be in the Truck Series again next year and just got to figure things out over there. We started off this year really strong and fell off really hard. It really hasn't been the year that we want, but I feel like I haven’t found the right person that I click with yet. So, yeah, we just got to keep searching and find someone who can help me and kind of lean on each other, sort of like what I had over here with Dave [Connolly]. So it's all about people and surrounding yourself with the right people.
“In every sport, things evolve a lot. Things are always changing. You see it all the time. I think that's just the way sports goes. When you're doing something at a high level, you're always looking to improve. And sometimes in order to improve, you have to make changes. I don't know what my future looks like quite yet, as far as that side of things. I know that I'll be racing in the Truck Series next year, and I know it'll be with DGR.”
He said his program there is inching toward success: “I feel like we're getting closer, but [we] still [have] some work to be done.”
And he knows he can improve on his 17.120-second elapsed time and 49.05-mph speed. He knows he’s better than that and that Kramer’s car is capable of much more. He has two qualifying chances Saturday to make the 16-car field for Sunday’s eliminations.
GRANDKIDS, GOATS, AND OH YEAH, 800 RACES - John Force was expecting the reporter's call. What he didn't anticipate was the opening question.
"John, what are your feelings headed into your 800th race?"
Force responded with a question, "My 800th race? Really, it's my 800th?"
Time goes by when you're having fun, so it appears.
Force shakes his head and smiles at the stuff that seems to get by him these days.
"I'm standing in the parking lot the other day, pissing and moaning about something," Force said as he reminisced. "A guy went by, and he said, "I heard you just had a grandchild. And he goes, 'How many grandkids you got?" I said, "Well, I got Autumn, Jacob, Noah, Harlan, and Tinley."
"I knew I had five grandkids; it just didn't register what it meant. I went home, and I thought, 'God, I've got five grandkids."
"Then I thought about it. I love my grandkids to death, but I never even thought about it. And all of a sudden, it was like, wow, I was all excited. I told my wife, 'We've got five grandkids."
"She goes, 'You just realized that?" And I said, "No, it's awesome."
One builds a lot of memories in 800 races when the career spans five decades. Force started racing in the early 1970s, but it wasn't until 1977 that he mustered the courage to enter an NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series national event.
Force entered the 1977 NHRA Winternationals in Pomona, Calif.
In the weeks ahead of the event, Force made his way out to his local track in Orange County, Calif., and on the first run, encountered mayhem as the car erupted into massive flames. Up until this point, Force's attempts at drag racing had been anything but easy. He'd crashed a Fuel Altered on the backroads of Bellflower, Calif., in an attempt to impress his then-girlfriend (now wife) Laurie. Then he had to recover a race trailer stolen from him only to run over the mayor of the small town where he had to go to steal it back. Then there was the well-publicized trip to Australia, where he went Down Under at the urging of his Uncle Gene Beaver with zero knowledge of how to run a Funny Car. To hear the accounts of Gary Densham and Force himself, it's a wonder he made it out alive.
"My wife had bought me a St. Christopher's [medal] to go to Australia, to protect you in flight," Force recalled. "And then I burnt it down at Orange County, to the ground. It was smoldering. And I remember Beaver said, 'The only thing left you've got to sell is the story because there ain't no effing race car.’
"And I turned it into a story, and that's when people started writing about me, right there at Orange County."
Sure enough, Force was the talk of Orange County that day as veteran photographer John Shanks captured the moment on film and it ended up in Hot Rod magazine.
Force somehow fixed the Monza and made it to Pomona, only to face another issue. A new NHRA rule enacted in 1977 required all Funny Cars to have an escape hatch. His Monza didn't have one, but that appeared to be an easy fix for the headstrong Force.
"I just cut a hole in the roof and put the roof hatch on with a couple of bolts because I couldn't afford to go to a chassis shop," Force admitted. “And I went down to the racetrack at Pomona, and I have the picture. The whole roof caved in. It took all the strength out of it. So much for me being a chassis builder."
So much for Force making the field, too.
Force did return in 1978 and qualified for his first national event at the season-ending 1978 NHRA World Finals at the now-defunct Ontario Motor Speedway in Ontario, Calif.
Force committed to racing the entire NHRA season in 1979. The decision proved one of the worst and the best he'd ever made to that point in his career. It was a bad decision because he barely had the resources to run half of the schedule. The best was his first career top 10 points finish.
It wouldn't be until 1983 that he finished in the top 10 again, ascending as high as fourth.
"I raced for the first 10 - 12 years, and I drove the rig from race to race," Force explained.
Force carried two common nicknames in those days. Most knew him as Brute Force, while others chose another one that he says was more appropriate: the leaker.
Bill Doner, the premiere drag-racing promoter of those days, suggested once that Force turn his car upside down and use it as a boat. NHRA even employed Force as transportation for their National DRAGSTER newspapers and bags of grease sweep, mainly used following his runs.
Force hired Austin Coil in 1985 as his crew chief, and the first change he made was in demanding his driver could no longer drive the rig from race to race.
"In the early days, I didn't go home for three months," Force admitted. "You'd come out here and stay. You couldn't afford to fly back and forth, and you were the only truck driver you had. When Coil came in, he said, 'I'm not going to work for you. They told me you drove the truck and lived on the road. And I didn't believe it. No owner drives his own truck."
"And he said, 'You get to the races. That's why you can't drive. You're so effing tired. You're so effed up you don't know it."
Coil, out of his meager paycheck from Force, who ran Coca-Cola on his Funny Car without receiving a dime of sponsorship from them, began purchasing his employer's plane tickets.
"He just said, 'We ain't doing this no more," Force recalled. "And then I ended up paying for them. But he actually bought me tickets, because he gave a crap, and he wanted us to do good."
For Force, those early days were of survival, and that often meant bypassing interstate scales from the east to west coasts and whatever he could do to make ends meet.
"That's how I lived. It just evolved over time," Force said.
From 1985 until the present, Force finished in the top 10 every year except for 2020, when he pulled his teams off the tour during the pandemic.
Force has been called the G.O.A.T., a term he didn't fully understand meant "greatest of all time" until about 750 races into his career. For a long time, he believed those who used the reference were calling him a goat, as in an old goat.
"GOAT is a terrible name to call somebody, you know what I mean?" Force said, bordering on a rant. "I get calls like, 'Hey, I heard somebody call you the GOAT on TV. Don't that tick you off?’ Because some people don't know what GOAT means. I didn't. I just figured it out a few months ago."
"I learned about the GOAT from why they called Tom Brady the GOAT. Just G-O-A-T, it just didn't ring a bell, didn't care, never thought about it. Never heard it. And every now and then, they'd call somebody a GOAT. And I thought . . . and so finally I had to ask, ‘What the eff's it stand for?’ Couldn't they come up with another name instead of GOAT?"
While Force is coming to terms with the goat terminology, he let it slip that next March he will have to learn how to come to grips with another term, Hall of Famer. Force revealed he got the call from Don Garlits recently confirming he will be in the Class of 2023 inductees for the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame.
"I really am proud of that," Force stopped, bearing his classic smile.
Force had earlier opportunities to get inducted but deferred to others he said deserved it more than him. Or, as some have said, the selectors figured he would never retire or pass away, so they'd might as well go ahead and put him in.
But, as Force sees it, the key to his 800 races was never about trying to earn a place in the Hall of Fame. The dragstrip has been his happy place, even when there wasn't much to be happy about.
"I got in the car with Danny and Fabrisi [crew chiefs Hood and Tim] this morning. And they're like, 'Can we get you coffee?’" Force recalled. "I'm taking fruit, Balance of Nature, and I'm taking all this stuff to make me healthy. And zinc and magnesium to keep COVID away."
Then they pulled into the track, and a different Force reemerged.
"Well, when you come here, it's like you're home," Force said. "Ask Fabrisi. And he'll tell you, ‘That Force was all depressed. And the minute we pulled in the gate, all of a sudden, his voice changed. He started laughing about everything.’
"That's because I am at home."
Force said he believes if all the time were added up for his time at the strip, it would easily outnumber his days at home.
Physically, Force knows Father Time is catching up rapidly, but he's still in the gym every day to keep age at bay.
"I ran into Al Unser Jr., and I was coming out of the gym, trying to get to my car," Force recalled. He laughed, and asked me, 'You OK?’ He was coming out of a place next door and goes, 'What are you doing in there?"
"I said, 'What do you think I'm doing? I'm working out.’
"He goes, 'At your age?’
"I laughed and said, 'I'm trying to stay in that race car.’"
And even when he can't stay in the race car, Force is prepared. He was determined to get his 800th race in the books, even if the unfortunate occurred.
"I'll go out here and tell them, 'If I fall over dead, put me in the car and shove me up there," Force said. "I'm going to tell them that right now. If anything goes, and my old pump quits, put me in that effing car and shove me to the starting line, and fire it up and turn on the stage light."
And the most entertaining part of it all, with 15 Funny Cars at the Pep Boys NHRA Nationals, Force would qualify.
Force didn't need to kick the bucket as his 3.890, 329.99 performance was enough to put him second in the field on Friday. – Bobby Bennett
CHATTERSON IMPRESSES – Eleven Top Fuel racers (Krista Baldwin, Scott Farley, Lex Joon, Alex Laughlin, Spencer Massey, Dan Mercier, Scott Palmer, Will Smith, Billy Torrence, Tripp Tatum, and Kyle Wurtzel) who competed at Indianapolis two weekends ago have opted out of this first Countdown race.
But Joe Morrison returned for just the third time this season, and the class gained a new driver, Jeff Chatterson, who’s racing the Paton Family’s dragster – and gaining some attention for his especially-respectable-for-a-rookie 3.927-second, 310.48-mph pass Friday night that landed him in the provisional 10th qualifying slot at the Pep Boys Nationals.
It was even more remarkable, considering he had only nine or 10 previous runs on that particular car.
This Canadian from Brantford, Ontario, hometown of hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, might be a bit of a mystery man to American drag-racing fans. But he’s a familiar face at Canadian dragstrips with his blown alcohol and Quick 8 racing and most recently his A/Fuel dragster. He and his father, Rick Chatterson, “raced together forever” until his dad’s passing 10 years ago.
Rick Chatterson isn’t here to see his son make his Top Fuel debut this weekend at the Pep Boys Nationals. But he was the one who used to take sons Jeff and Darryl to divisional-level races at Toronto Motorsports Park, at Cayuga, Ont.
“And you got to see Don Garlits, Gary Beck, and Shirley Muldowney,” Jeff Chatterson said. “And you’re sitting in the stands and you say, ‘I’d like to do that someday!’”
That someday is this weekend at Maple Grove Raceway, where he just might be an inspiration to a boy or girl sitting in the grandstands. His brother Darryl has been working on the car for 20-some years.
One thing Chatterson knows for certain is that this entire experience is an almost indescribable mix of wonderful and weird all at the same time.
He said his father “would’ve thought, ‘This is the greatest thing,’ for sure.” And he only could make a face that showed thrilling uncertainty – he couldn’t find the words – to express how wild and liberating and utterly addictive pass after pass in a Top Fuel dragster can be.
“The first time I experienced clutch lock-up was when I was getting my Top Fuel license [in 2109],” Chatterson said. “I was blown away with how much faster they are. You think, ‘Oh, it can’t be that much faster.’ Then you go, ‘Oh yeah! It’s a lot faster!’
On the other hand, he said, “For me, each lap that I take, either in the A/Fuel car or the Top Fuel car, everything does slow down [once he becomes familiar with it]. Your mind can actually focus and speed up enough to [stay on pace with the movement of the dragster]. It’s pretty weird. I don’t know how to explain it. I imagine people who have drive it lots probably get in and go, ‘It’s no big deal.’”
He said he wasn’t in that “It’s no big deal” mode.
Instead, Chatterson said before Friday’s opening qualifying session, “I’d kind of be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit nervous, you know what I mean?”
The weird part for him kicks in when he and the car are in the pit and the Barry Paton-led crew is fussing over and earnestly preparing the car. He’s used to being in that mix – “Usually I’ll do the bottom end or pull cylinder heads,” he said – but Friday he was on the sidelines, left to ponder what his driver checklist was and how he will go about legging that car down the Maple Grove 1,000-foot course in the desired sub-four seconds . . . which he did.
“It’s kind of weird for me. When we’re at the race, I’m usually doing something on the car. Now I’m waiting. They’ve got everything all taken care of,” Chatterson said.
He had to have days in which he wondered if a day like Friday ever would come along.
“We were supposed to a race long before this,” he said, “but it just didn’t work out” because of COVID and pandemic-related restrictions. With the change of plans, he ran some match races north of the border.
Chatterson said he anticipates that this will be his last Top Fuel appearance of the year, “unless we can find some more help financially.”
He will be at the upcoming Charlotte race with his own A/Fuel dragster, which he and his family with go home to Ontario to fetch and bring back down to zMAX Dragway for the Betway Carolina Nationals. The Patons will haul the dragster Chatterson is driving this weekend back home, across the border. The organization’s carnet will be expiring soon.
A “carnet” (pronounced kar-NAY) is an international customs and temporary import-export document that’s used to clear customs without paying duties or import taxes on merchandise that will be exported [such as race cars being transported across the border multiple times] within 12 months. Sometimes it’s referred to as a “merchandise passport.” And the carnet the Patons have for their race hauler and its contents will be expiring soon, Chatterson said.
Getting to start in these Pep Boys Nationals, he said, “For me, it’s a lifelong dream.”
HALLOWEEN’S ALMOST HERE, SO WHY NOT? – The design scheme on Mark Herzhauser’s 2014 Chevy Monte Carlo Funny Car that Phil Burkart is driving this weekend looks, well, creepy and scary, with “Eastern State Penitentiary” scrawled on the side panels.
Eastern State Penitentiary is a former prison located in Philadelphia that was the most expensive corrections facility in the world when it was built, intended to exact a strict sense of penitence for its inmates, and still today looks foreboding and gloomy and haunted. And how fitting that Burkart would drive the spooky-appearing car to 13th place overnight Friday.
He’ll have a couple of chances Saturday to improve on his 6.190-second pass and 107.72-mph speed before the order for Sunday eliminations is finalized.
But Burkart isn’t handcuffed to just the Eastern State Penitentiary-themed Funny Car. He also is racing Jay Blake's "Follow A Dream" Top Alcohol Funny Car. So he’s juggling a Dream and a nightmare, of sorts, this weekend, seeking to become only the second driver in the sport’s 71-year history to win in both the nitro and alcohol categories at the same event. Pat Austin did so in Top Fuel and Top Alcohol Funny Car at Topeka in 1991 and Phoenix in 1992.
"I'm not sure what odds the bookies would give us,” Burkart said, “but we are certainly going to give our best effort," Burkart said. "It'll be exciting for me, for sure. I've never driven both kinds of cars at a single race. I'll need to be on my toes, because the procedures for driving each car are quite different. I'll have to keep reminding myself which car I'm in."
He has shown he can handle both the nitro and alcohol versions of a Funny Car. He has filled in for legend John Force after running several campaigns with Del Worsham's Checker-Schucks-Kragen operation and has competed for various teams. In the Top Alcohol Funny Car class, Burkart is second in the Eastern Region points and, he said, “charging hard for the championship. We've already been to the winners circle twice [at Lebanon and Atco] and had two runner-up results [in Atco and Epping]. The Follow A Dream car has been on a rail. So we certainly feel we have a car that can win this weekend.
"In Funny Car, Mark Herzhauser has once again asked me to drive for him. This will be our third race of the year. We managed to run really well in our first two outings, in Richmond and Bristol, so the team was inspired to add this race to their schedule. With a guy like Jimbo Ermalovich serving as crew chief, we know anything is possible. It's a bit of a David vs. Goliath situation, but we're not backing down. We want to upset the cart."
BUTNER SEES DOWN ROAD – Bo Butner and his Johnson's Horsepowered Garage Pro Stock team started the season in the top five and spiraled down to 11th by the start of the Countdown.
However, he never changed his personality to coincide with what was happening on the racetrack. “I'm always happy, whether I'm in my Super Gas car or watching Randi Lyn [fiancée Shipp] in the Stocker. We're here to have a good time, and when you have a good time, you can turn win lights on."
Uncharacteristically, he didn’t turn on many during the so-called regular season. He entered this first of six Countdown events with a 7-13 race-day record. But the second-generation auto dealer from Southern Indiana employed his business sense to his racing program.
Butner said, “I can always see down the road. It's like buying an old car that needs some work done. You have to look down the road and think about what it's going to become.”
What his car – this new one he brought out at Topeka, after the Western Swing – became Friday night was the quickest Pro Stock car at Maple Grove Raceway. His 6.523-second elapsed time produced his first (at least tentative) No. 1 qualifying position of the season.
"We were a new team this year, and we knew it would take some time," he said. "But this is a new car, and we're very happy with it. Now we're competitive. Right from the start, this new car has been pretty good, and these last three runs have been very good."
He qualified for the Countdown, using the inclusionary rule that allows any racer who has appeared at every race during the regular season and has made at least two qualifying passes to be eligible for the title. He’s 110 points off leader Erica Enders’ pace.
Nevertheless, Butner said, "Our goal is to go some rounds, get to a final, then try to win a race or two – then we'll go from there. Now we have something to build on, and we can continue to do better. There's always more."
When he looks down that proverbial road today, he sees possibilities.
COLLECTION OF LUCKY CHARMS – She still has the acorn. It was just a small one, like hundreds of others that have dropped to the ground at Maple Grove Raceway every autumn. But this particular one Brittany Force noticed, and she picked it up. She whimsically decided it would be her lucky charm – and maybe it was. She won the Top Fuel final that day in 2017 on her way to the championship.
So she has developed a habit of collecting the odd object from racetracks and her travels.
“It’s things like that, just in that moment . . . It sounds crazy, but you’re banking on your superstitions. It’s fun,” Force said of the “bunch of random things that don’t mean anything to anybody else. Sometimes it’s something a fan has given me, whether it’s a little bracelet a girl made me or kids will draw a picture of my race car or something I’ve hung onto, something that’s special.”
She calls each one a “good-luck charm, put-it-in-your-pocket type of thing. I’ll put it in my firesuit, and I’ll carry it with me. It’s special things like that I do collect. They’re in my collection at the Yorba Linda (Calif.) shop, just random things, little stuffed animals people give me.” Other items simply are gifts from fans: “People will bring me cat things, and Cheez-Its.”
But she leaves behind the frivolous frou-frou when she prepares for a run in the Monster Energy/Flav-R-Pac Dragster. And she knows the Countdown is not time for messing around and that this Pep Boys Nationals is a pivotal event: “We have six left, and we’re going after a championship.”
She won her title from the No. 6 starting spot, so she’s in a different place psychologically than she was at this time in 2017. The points reset five years ago was a benefit. Now it’s a concern for her.
“That’s the way it works, though,” Force said of the Countdown.” It makes it exciting for the fans. We know going into it that’s how it works: your points get pulled, then reset. When we won in 2017, we came from sixth, so we made a big leap there. If we can hang in there and keep doing what we’re doing, we should be good.”
Once again, Force has dug herself into a hole she’ll need both qualifying sessions to try to climb from Saturday. She’s last in the 15-car line-up overnight Friday.
And she knows she has to scrape and claw to keep her No. 1 position in the standings.
“There’s no team out there that you line up against and say, ‘Oh, we got this.’ It doesn’t exist. There’s no team to take lightly,” Force said.