SECOND STRAIGHT VICTORY POSITIONS FORCE AS EARLY TOP FUEL DOMINATOR - Whether she’s running four-wide or in the traditional two-wide format, Monster Energy Dragster driver Brittany Force has positioned herself as the early Top Fuel dominator. 

With her half-car-length final-round victory Sunday afternoon over serious title contender Justin Ashley at the final NHRA SpringNationals at Houston Raceway Park, Force completed back-to-back victories in the Camping World Drag Racing Series. 

The Las Vegas winner got the last word in her ongoing on-track battle with Steve Torrence. He swiped her provisional No. 1 qualifying berth in last seconds of qualifying Saturday. 

In recording her third Houston victory since 2018, she knocked the current and four-time champion from his No. 1 status in the standings as the Camping World Drag Racing Series moves this coming weekend to zMAX Dragway at Concord, N.C., for the Circle K Four-Wide Nationals. 

Force shared the winners podium with hometown heroine Erica Enders, who defeated Camrie Caruso in the first all-woman Pro Stock final round (or, for that matter, the first female match-up in any round in the class’ 905-race legacy). 

Matt Hagan (Funny Car) and Steve Johnson (Pro Stock Motorcycle) also won in the final NHRA visit to this Baytown, Texas, venue that has been on the schedule for 33 years. 

“I love Houston and winning here with our teams over the years,” Force said. “We won in ’18 and ’19 . One [in 2018] followed a terrible wreck of mine, and only four races later did we win. And it was an emotional win for me, because I didn’t know if we would ever get back.” 

“Then we came back in ’19 with David Grubnic and Mac Savage [as crew chiefs] and now I’m with them, celebrating another win. It’s just incredible to be able to do it here in Houston in the final race. This Monster Energy team, we wanted to go out on top, and we did it to close out Houston. To close out Houston with a win is just incredible for us.” 

It’s the facility at which her father, Funny Car legend John Force, notched the milestone 100th of his 154 victories April 14, 2002, and has won an NHRA-record seven times. 

“Luckily, we got the job done in the final round. It wasn’t easy,” Brittany Force said. “It was a lot of me sitting down and trying to figuring my s--- out before going into the final round, because it was a tough day for me. But we battled it out and got it done in the final when it mattered.” 

For the fifth straight race this year and for the 15th time the past 21 events, Force set top speed of the meet. This week she posted a track-record 333.58 mph speed, which overrode her previous mark of 332.18 from 2019. She also leaves Houston with the three-year-old track elapsed-time mark, as well, at 3.661 seconds.   

In Sunday’s final round, she won on a holeshot with a 3.767-second elapsed time (at 321.42 mph) on the 1,000-foot course against Ashley’s quicker 3.763-second pass at 329.58 mph in the Phillips Connect / Vita C Dragster. 

She defeated Josh Hart, Shawn Langdon, and Billy Torrence on her way to her 30th career final-round appearance. 

“I felt confident coming in, and it was an incredible day for our team,” Force said. “Justin is one of the best leavers in the class, so I knew we had to step it up. I really wanted it in the final round, so I had to do my job. Getting back-to-back wins is huge for us, and we’re back in the seat next weekend. So we’ll try to do it again in Charlotte. All the hard work by our team, for it to pay off with two wins in a row, it’s great for them. And I’m really proud of all of my guys.” 

Meanwhile, Winternationals winner Ashley said the same but said he cost his team a second victory of the season. 

“It was a good day. Truthfully, I didn’t do my job in the final round, and that cost us the win. And it’s very disappointing,” he said.” We gave it all that we had today, and the team did a great job. We had a little bit of an issue there in the semifinals, and they were able to turn the car around and make it happen in time, which is just incredible. It’s a testament to the team and the entire group that I have. This one’s on me. We’ll regroup and get to Charlotte to get after the win.” 

Ashley eliminated Doug Foley, Austin Prock, and Steve Torrence to advance to his second final round this season. Susan Wade

MATT HAGAN STAYS HOT, WINS FUNNY CAR IN HOUSTON - Logically, when nitro Funny Car world champion Matt Hagan left powerhouse team Don Schumacher Racing to join new Tony Stewart Racing in the offseason, there seemed like there would be more questions than answers.

Hagan, however, has proved all skeptics wrong.

In five races in the 2022 season, Hagan has two wins and two runner-up finishes.

Hagan’s latest victory came Sunday at the SpringNationals at Houston Raceway Park, the final NHRA national event at the venue.

Hagan clocked a 3.982-second at 326.63 mph to defeat Bobby Bode’s 4.046-second run at 282.95 mph, which included him blowing the body off his Funny Car right near the finish line.

“I could hear (Bobby) beside me, and I was like ‘man this might be a real drag race.’ I have done that. I have blown bodies up and you have chaos. When they were pushing (Bobby) off the track, and I guess the kid chucked his helmet with passion because he hated he loss. Tony was like I’m going to buy that kid a helmet. I love people who are passionate like that, and I don’t think Tony has ever chucked anything before in his life. The kid is a good kid and he’s passionate about it. That passion is what you need in this sport.”

Hagan’s victory parade consisted of wins over John Force, Ron Capps, J.R. Todd and Bode.

“I just kept telling myself, don’t mess it up,” Hagan said. “We have a great car, and the car is running well. You simplify everything you do. Every final round, I just keep doing what I’m doing. I don’t go up there trying to do something extra or make something else happen and when it is supposed to be, it will be. We have such a great team and {crew chief} Dickie Venables has been able to assemble this great group of guys around me for the last nine to 10 years. I have won almost all my Funny Car races with Dickie, and it is just a statement of how good the guy is.

“There are a lot of heavy hitters, Guido (Dean Antonelli, Ron Capps’ crew chief) and Jimmy Prock (Robert Hight’s crew chief) and all those guys and I would not trade Dickie for anybody. Like I said a long time ago, when I was named driver of the decade, it was because of Dickie’s stats and what he has done, not because of me. The dude is incredible.”

This was Hagan’s 41st career nitro Funny Car NHRA national event victory.

The win was extra special for Hagan as Venables memorialized the passing of his father Dick Venables last night at his home track in Houston. Dick passed away Dec. 29, 2021, in Houston. He was 82.

“For Dickie Venables and his entire family to be here and his dad passing,” Hagan said. “Dick Venables was such a huge part of Dickie and what he has done in his career. They worked together with (Rahn) Tobler and all those people and to have that inspiration from his dad. This race means so much to me because in 2010, I won my first race here. I pretty much pedaled every round and won in the final on a pedal job.

“To close it out here with a win and be able to honor and commemorate Dickie and his dad and his entire family being here, it is super, super special. It is a sad, sad, thing but we are able to end on a good note and to be able to give him and his family the trophy this weekend is massive. I’m probably going to cry like a little girl when I have the time, but it means so much because Dickie means so much to me.”

Hagan also praised Bobby Bode and his father Bob.

“Bob Bode and his son are doing a great job,” Hagan said. “I told them to keep doing what they are doing. That kid is doing a great job driving, I’m super proud of him. We need youngsters like that coming up in the sport. I hated to rain on his parade for his (20th) birthday weekend. I was signing his card and I put you freaking stud on his birthday card. That’s just drag racing. I’m here to do a job and that’s turn win lights on and that’s what I get paid to do.”

Hagan arrived in Houston in the points lead and will leave atop the standings. Hagan has a 15-3 elimination round record this season.

“We’re just making a statement this year,” Hagan said. “There are a lot of heavy hitters and we got through a lot of them today. There were no easy runs today. You look at Bode, it is his birthday weekend, and he’s probably going to pull something out of his a**. That’s just how stuff happens. All in all, it was a really great weekend.”

Hagan acknowledged the positivity he’s been displaying this season is a direct link to his new team – TSR.

“We are just in such a good place mentally with Tony as a team owner,” Hagan said. “He’s like whatever you guys need, he doesn’t have the mentality of doing more with less, it is whatever it takes. It is kind of funny watching Tony learn a little bit. We have a track specialist out here now and he’s looking at the tires and he’s like if their chunking, there’s probably not enough rubber on there and it is like they will clean up in the burnout and no he’s like we need them full of rubber. His mentality is to win and that’s what I love. That’s a driver’s mentality of whatever takes. We are going to get up on the tire and get up on the wheel, we are going to make this happen.

“That carries over into my crew and my crew guys. Nobody knows this but a couple of years ago, I gave my bonus to my guys to keep them there.  They were like ‘we’re quitting, we’ll go drive a truck.’ Money motivates everybody. I gave over my bonus to keep my crew guys there and these guys are getting paid what they deserve, and they are happy to be there and wrenching on the car. They are coming in with a smile rather than coming in and me wondering if they are going to quit on me. We have a bad a** team and when the mentality is there, we have an incredible team. That is showing on the racetrack.”

After his sizzling start to 2022, Hagan is upbeat about the future, especially the next race on the schedule the Circle K NHRA Four-Wide Nationals, April 29-May 1 in Concord, N.C., NASCAR country.

“I’m just excited for what’s to come,” he said. “We have a lot in store. I really hope that NHRA sees how big this is for NHRA. To be able to bring a guy like Tony (Stewart) and that caliber and that fan base and the demeanor and charisma he brings to NHRA. I just hope we don’t miss the boat with that and really highlight that not because I’m driving for him, but it is such a good thing for our sport, and it shows how our sport is growing and people want to be here and spend money. It is such a good thing. We need this crossover. We have to have these NASCAR boys and gals. They have big-time money and big-time sponsors, and we need to bring that to NHRA.

“What we have is the most incredible thing ever is and we have to figure out how to showcase it and highlight it better. There’s nothing that we do that is more extreme than this.” Tracy Renck

ERICA ENDERS CAPTURES STORYBOOK WIN IN HOUSTON’S FINAL RACE - Hollywood movie producers couldn’t have written a better script for four-time Pro Stock world champion Erica Enders Sunday.

Enders, a native of Houston, won the final race at Houston Raceway Park, beating rookie Camrie Caruso in the finals.

Enders clocked a 6.568-second elapsed time at 210.24 mph to defeat Caruso’s 6.624-second lap at 209.26 mph.

“I don’t know if I could put it into words, honestly,” Enders said about the emotional win. “I have so many wonderful memories at this racetrack. Starting before I got behind the wheel, watching our dad drive and I grew up with a lot of the people who won in the Sportsman class today. It was an unbelievable day. I made my first passes in a Junior Dragster at this racetrack. I won my first national event Wally in Super Gas here (in 2004). I think this was our third Pro Stock win here with a few more final round appearances as well. This is huge. The roar of the crowd of Houston Raceway Park when you turn on win lights is like none other.

“The Angel family, the people who owned the track, Junior drag raced with us at the track. It is a little bit of an emotional day because it is the last time we will ever have the chance to come here, but I’m glad we went out with a bang. It is so cool that it had such an epic finale here at a place that is so near and dear to my heart.”

Houston Raceway Park is closing following the 2022 season.

This was Enders 36th career Pro Stock national event win. She has now won two races in a row as she captured the title at the Four Wide Nationals at the Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, April 3.

Enders, who won world championships in 2014-15 and 2019-20, beat Christian Cuadra, Matt Hartford, Kyle Koretsky and Caruso, who was the No. 1 qualifier.

“It was definitely challenging to get the focus aspect under control today,” Enders said. “The day didn’t start as planned for me, but it ended as planned and that is all that matters ultimately. To be here in front of the hometown crowd, before first round, my sister and I walked up just outside the guard wall and the starting line, and we took a picture with the packed grandstands in the background. After we got the trophy, walking back to the winner’s circle, looking up at the tower knowing this is the last one.

“You can go back through my career and look at the major moments, the ones that really matter, and with the great group of guys standing behind me we have been able to execute every single time. This is one of those super proud moments. Before we pulled in the water box in the finals, I saw all my Sportsman buddies who had won. A ton of Houstonians won here today. I just had to go up there and do my job and we were able to do it.”

If there wasn’t enough going on Sunday, this was the first time two women raced head-to-head in a Pro Stock final.

“The final round was very cool, especially being at my home track,” Enders said. “The first Junior Drag Race I won was an all-girl final back when I was 8 years old. That was fun and this is huge for Pro Stock. I was the only (woman) out here for 18 years and Camrie worked for our team for a small stint a couple of years back. It was a cool deal.

“On the other side of it, we have worked really to not be talked about as anything different. We wanted to be viewed as a driver that is my ultimate goal. I don’t want to be the best female driver. I want to be the best driver period. I think if you go down the list of stellar female athletes we have in this sport, they will tell you the same thing.”

Enders also took time to address her mindset when she lined up against Caruso in the finals.

“My deal in my cockpit, is all about us, our car, our lane,” Enders said. “I’m completely focused. I don’t give a crap who is next to me. But, stepping out and looking at it when I was 20 years old, I got my Pro Stock license, and I was a few years younger than she is now. I remember coming into the class, a class I watched growing up I sat in the living room in a laundry basket pretending to shift a Pro Stock car. Then, you are in a Pro Stock car in the final round against Greg Anderson, Jason Line, Jeg Coughlin, Warren Johnson and all these people I grew up watching who are legends of our sport.

“I totally get her mindset because I remember that. That’s part of growing as a driver and being able to dismiss the emotion involved in it. We had that stuff happened at the top end during qualifying and she was crying, and I told her to look at me. I told her, ‘Let’s focus on your No. 1 qualifier. It is the first ever. Look at the positive things and do not let these people see you cry because when I cried, they tear you apart. It’s unfortunate you can’t show emotion but suck it up and do it in your trailer. I feel like there’s a lot of advice to be given and lessons to be learned as she acquires a thick skin and does a good job.” Tracy Renck

JOHNSON SENDING MESSAGE: HE’S NOT BLITHELY HAPPY UNDERDOG BUT RATHER BIKE-CLASS CONTENDER - When the doors of an elevator open, no one really knows exactly what’s going to happen. We all know what we expect to happen. But when NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle racer Steve Johnson is involved, that skews the odds. 

In his 35-year career, Steve Johnson has been an undeniably zealous ambassador for drag racing and for his class and for his program. So of course, he thought nothing of rolling his motorcycle that weighs nearly 700 pounds and is close to eight feel long into the elevator of a swanky downtown Houston hotel and taking it up 28 floors for his show-and-tell props at a pre-race press conference for long-time sponsor Slick 50. That’s how he rolls. 

But what Johnson did Sunday in the final SpringNationals at Houston Raceway Park was prove for the 10th time that he was more than a offbeat sideshow. He reminded everyone – for the 10th time – that he is a winner . . . against the best the class has to offer. 

On the Baytown, Texas, quarter-mile, capped a show-off week with a victorious 6.720-second pass at 199.91 mph against nemesis Matt Smith, the five-time and reigning champion. 

Granted, Smith had made a last-minute switch from his under-performing Suzuki to his trustier Buell – without any real warm-up or practice in any way on the motorcycle.

But it was Johnson’s week, his time to shine against Smith. Not only did he beat Smith and his certainly respectable 6.811-second, 200.47-mph in the final, but he also eclipsed Smith’s track records as he set low elapsed time and top speed of the meet, 6.711 seconds at 201.55 mph. Along the way, he surpassed 200 mph several times for the first time in his career. 

“I had so much fun in the final. We all hate each other . . . or love each other . . . or I’m not really sure what it is. We don’t send each other Christmas cards. Matt is the professional, and if you follow NHRA, we’re the hobbyist,” Johnson said facetiously, referring to Smith’s not-especially-derogatory description of some racers in the class. “But we are pretty fierce.” 

Johnson was fierce in taking a sort-of-good-natured swipe at Smith. He said, “We have such a little, tiny team, but if I had $10 million, I’d be doing the same thing. Find what you love and chase it and do not stop. And beat Matt Smith, no matter what bike he buys . . . er, brings.” 

Smith looked over and grinned at Johnson, who said, “Hey, man, I had to say it.” 

Johnson said, “No matter how you do it, when you come to a drag race – watching, working on a motorcycle, selling hamburgers – we’re a family, and we all love it in our own way.” 

He and Smith have traded barbs a bit throughout the past few years, and Johnson said fans have said to cut out the mouthing back and forth and all the social-media sniping and just let the scoreboards speak for themselves. 

Johnson said Sunday evening, “I like the chit-chat, but I do like the scoreboards talking, too.” 

Right now, they’re saying things he likes to read. And that’ he said, is because he has embarked on a learning journey, asking questions, discovering new technological information, forming what he calls an advisory board of racers and non-racers alike, and taking a refresher course at Frank Hawley’s Drag Racing School. 

“We’ve been diggin’ and diggin’ and diggin’,” Johnson said. “It’s so gratifying. No matter how good you think you are, get some coaching. Continue your education. So we’ve been learning. 

“I hope a lot of you wake up every day and want to be the best you can be,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what you’re doing – be the best parent or teacher or whatever it is.” 

That’s what he’s trying to do, and he has made tremendous strides already. It showed Sunday when he eliminated Michael Ray, Jimmy Underdahl, and four-time champion Eddie Krawiec on his was to the showdown with Smith. 

Johnson said he works in a 10,000-square-foot shop at Birmingham, Ala., and spends “95 percent of my time” in a 10-foot-x-12-foot engine room. He said he sleeps on a blow-up mattress there at work much of the time he’s not on the road. 

That’s the life he loves, even with its ups and downs. Now he has a new “elevator pitch.” Susan Wade



The tears should have been ones of joy. 

In just her fifth professional outing, the NHRA SpringNationals at Baytown, Texas, 24-year-old rookie Camrie Caruso became only the second woman to earn a top- qualifying position in the Pro Stock class. It came 16 years after Erica Enders scored her first No. 1 start in 2006 at Topeka. 

Instead of celebrating, the tears running down her cheeks Saturday afternoon at Houston Raceway Park as she bravely stood for a television interview with FOX’s Amanda Busick represented a jumble of emotions. Within minutes, Caruso was all smiles –  but not after an unexpected encounter with four-time class champion Enders.

The veteran and newcomer went head to head on the racetrack in the final qualifying session, with Enders trying to capture Caruso’s top starting spot. Caruso held onto it by nine-thousandths of a second (6.547 to 6.556). However, a misunderstanding about top-end track etiquette or procedure – and a late-afternoon breeze – sent the parachutes from Enders’ Melling/Elite Camaro crashing over the top of Caruso’s Sand Haulers of America Camaro. Caruso’s car ended up with damage, but her crew was expected to repair it in time for Sunday eliminations. 

Busick saw Caruso was emotional about the incident and about whatever Enders said to her when they got out of their cars. So she stalled with some narrative, giving Caruso time to collect herself. Then Busick said, “I know Erica Enders came over and said some words to you, but I want you to focus on this moment. For the first time you are No. 1 qualifier in just your fifth race. Could you have imagined success this soon?” 

Caruso said, “I have my team to thank and everybody else - everybody who backs me, and I'm just really thankful and grateful for the opportunity.” 

Asked what Enders said to her, Caruso replied, “Doesn't matter. We're going to focus and get it fixed and go move on. Is what it is.” 

Caruso and Enders talked further and hugged one another, and Enders brushed tears from Caruso’s face as they appeared to resolve any differences quickly. 

Then Busick interviewed Enders, who explained the incident from her viewpoint: “Well, we crossed and then she shot past me, right? So, I tucked in to follow her around, and as we're making the turn, she just dead stopped on an active racetrack. So I swerved to the right to not hit her and I mean, you just coast around the corner. 

“I hate it for her,” Enders said, “because they're going to talk about that crap instead of her being No. 1. That's her first No. 1 qualifier, but they'll joke all they want about two girls being on the racetrack at the same time. But you know, whatever. Our Melling Performance Chevy Camaro is super badass this weekend,” she said. “Mark Ingersoll, my boys, Rick and Ricky Jones, are back on the property this weekend. So we definitely got our hot rod tuned up. Hopeful to have a long day here in our hometown and we'll see what happens.”

Caruso told a media gathering later, “It could have been anybody. She’s a great racer, and I’m sure she didn’t want the incident to happen, either. Sucks that it happened. But it’s racing, and anything could happen.” 

Meanwhile, back at the starting line, Caruso’s crew chief, two-time Pro Stock champion Jim Yates, said of his driver, “She’s done such a great job adjusting. I mean, I talked to her earlier today about what a great job she's done just being in the car and being right up to speed and know what to do in the circumstances. You can't teach that. She feels it in her body and she knows whether the car is going left or right, how to correct it, getting on the shift points really good. I mean, the more runs we make the better she's going to get but for coming from where she's been to where she's at today. I'm really awful proud of her, awful proud of her.” 

She told the media, “He’s a little fired up about the car right now. He’s not too happy at the moment. That’s his baby, just as it is ours.” 

Caruso’s version of what happened was that she thought she and Enders pulled their parachutes at the same time and that “I think she [Enders] veered toward me. When we got up there [at the shutdown area, they [Safety Safari personnel] had their hands up, so I stopped. And it didn’t go as planned.”

She said, “The race car’s going to get fixed. It’ll be all good. It’ll be ready for race day.” 

The top-qualifying distinction, she said, “means the world to me and my team. I’m super-grateful for the opportunity. I never would’ve thought we could’ve achieved such a cool thing so soon.” 

HULL HAS WELL-THOUGHT-OUT PLAN – Buddy Hull doesn’t make haphazard moves. His steps are deliberate and thoughtful. Maybe some don’t understand why the Top Fuel newcomer competed in the season opener at Pomona, then sat out the next three events and is returning now with his sharp-looking, newly wrapped VertexRoofers.com Dragster.

It’s because he has a carefully crafted plan. And things aren’t always what they appear to be. 

Take, for example, Hull’s Friday qualifying pass. He didn’t reach the finish line under full power. But that was exactly what he had planned to do, even though it left him outside the field of 16, along with Cam Ferré. That was a planned shutoff, mentor and tuner (and Funny Car owner-driver-crew chief) Tim Wilkerson said. Hull knew he had two more chances Saturday to qualify and favorable weather conditions to help. 

Some might question why Hull simply hasn’t come out to the racetracks since mid-February, just to get seat time and grab some qualifying money. That’s not Hull’s approach. 

“You can't just get out there. You have to go out there with intentions,” he said. “If your goal is to qualify, just qualify, you're defeated. You got beat before you started.”

Some might guess that as an independent team owner and a first-year one at that that he doesn’t have an adequate supply of parts. That’s not the case. 

“We have more parts than any independent team out here,” Hull said. “But, you know, it's my life. I overkill everything. It's what I do. I want to be competitive. I don't want to be the guy that comes out here and [my opponent] says, ’Oh, we got Buddy first round. OK, all right, no big deal. The car will run a .90.’ No. We want to have a 3.75 to a 3.85 race car that can do it time and time again and be competitive. That's what we want to do. 

“We want to have nice equipment, nice parts, good crew, good tuner and come out here [and have opponents say,] ‘OK. They are to be respected. They have good stuff. We can't just go up there and take them lightly,’” he said. 

That’s why after this weekend, Hull will skip eight more events (Charlotte, Richmond, Epping, Bristol, Norwalk, Denver, Sonoma, and Seattle). He’ll return at Topeka, then bypass the Brainerd race and become a little more visible at Indianapolis and during the Countdown. He plans to enter the St. Louis, Dallas, and Las Vegas races this fall.

“That's our big push at the end of the year,” Hull said. “That's our big push because by then we'll have tons of parts in the trailer. It takes that long to really build up the parts.”

It will take a little bit longer after Saturday’s second and final qualifying run. He made the 16-car field, bumping in to anchor it at No. 16 with a 3.916-second pass. The unpleasant news is that his engine detonated as he approached the finish line, and a fireball meant his VertexRofers.com Dragster crew would have extra work overnight.  

But his long-range plan remains intact. He said, “Going to Phoenix [for the PRO-sponsored preseason warm-up] and going to Pomona, literally, we use that as our training opportunity. So now we've got some reps and you know, we’ll always continue to improve but now we have a clue,” he said. “We're taking the time in the shop [at Alvarado, Texas, just southwest of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex] to completely take the car apart and put the car back together. We're in a much better place. And I'm aggressive, so I'll continue to force improvement.”

Wilkerson told Hull when he sold him the equipment in the off-season that he would provide guidance if Hull assembled a capable team. He did, and they have been practicing procedures. Hull said, “The key is repetition. Just being around the car, touching the car, looking at it. It sounds crazy, but the more you're around something, the more it becomes part of you.”

Hull is a Central Illinois native who is a Texas transplant with offices for his Vertex Roofing & General Contractors business at Frisco, northeast of Dallas, and Alvarado. So he doesn’t have to special bond to Houston Raceway Park like Pro Stock racers Rodger Brogdon and Erica Enders do. Just the same, he laments the racetrack’s plan to close soon.

This facility, he said, is special to us. I live in Texas, and so Dallas and Houston, obviously, have got to be important to us,” he said. “Last year I ran the final race in Atlanta. I raced Top Fuel last year in Atlanta before they shut that one down. I don't have a lot of memories at this track. I've only been here a total of well, this is my third time in my entire life, but it's a Texas racetrack. So to me, it's important. And it's important that they either try to keep this one open, which doesn't look like it's going to happen, or get another one built so we can have Houston back on the schedule.”

FOLEY USING ALL TOOLS IN SPONSOR-PITCH TOOLBOX – Doug Foley has learned that what interests potential marketing partners these days might not be a racer’s on-track performance. Nevertheless, he said, he’s going to leverage his Top Fuel final-round appearance against eventual first-time winner Tripp Tatum at last month’s Gatornationals as much as he can in his quest to compete at more races.

Foley didn’t expect to go to the Las Vegas event, which was next on the schedule following the Gainesville race – and he didn’t. (“We knew we couldn't go to Vegas. It's another 50% more than any other race for us going that far,” he said) .But that didn’t mean his first-time-finalist momentum stopped. 

“NHRA said the last time they had two cars in a final that had never been there before [that did not] show up to the next race was 1972. That's a pretty interesting stat. As racers, of course, we wanted to go to the next race. You think for some reason you left Gainesville and you did well, that it's going to help you in Vegas. It really doesn't have much to do with anything. But more importantly, the fact that we see this team generating round-wins, working together as a team [counts],” Foley said.

“And I can tell you this: you could have walked in here – now, that's a team that had not gone a round that year – you could have walked in this pit area and you would not have known that they didn't go to the final the last three races. Everybody was just doing their job,” Foley said. “And think about it . . . Almost none of them is a full-time employee. So you look at what they accomplish and what the team's accomplishing, that's what makes me strive to keep investing like [co-team owner] Tim Lewis does: keep investing in what we're building, and see if we can find that one or two partners that can really help us take it to another level.” 

The reality in today’s business climate is that decisions are based on different factors than they were when he began racing Top Fuel dragsters in 2004. 

“Results did matter. When people put a tremendous amount of value on TV time, obviously, the further you go, the more TV time you get, the more interviews, all of that. And not that TV doesn't matter, but people are looking for direct connections to other businesses,” he said. “And that's what we try to focus on. But at the same time, when you can offer them, whether it's half a million dollars of branding to help grow their name, it sure doesn't hurt.

His Gainesville feat, he said, is a fact he does bring up in his pitches. 

“We try to boast whatever we have in our toolbox to try and generate that,” Foley said. At the same time, he said, “we find today, it's more the B2B side than it is how far you went in the race and all of that. But as racers, that means everything to us on how far we get. It's a combination of whatever you can offer a potential sponsor and try and figure out what works for them and make it happen.” 

If nothing else, he said, his Gainesville performance helped him personally. 

“I think it's more perception whether it's internal or external. I don't think it matters. I think when you feel like you're building something that you can believe in, you're going to call twice as many people. You're going to be twice as aggressive. It's going to make you want to go to more races,” Foley said. “So either way, it works. It's the furthest we've ever been in any race. Now all you do is strive to just be the second- to-last guy down the track instead of the last guy down the track on Sunday.” 

Even attending this Houston race “was a question mark when we left Gainesville,” Foley said. “We were able to find some local companies here to help us out. And we go to Charlotte [and] Virginia [the next two races on the Camping World Drag Racing Series schedule]. So we can stay on the tour a little bit longer.” He said he’s “working on something for Epping [the June 3-5 race in New Hampshire] now. And we just keep trying to do whatever we can do.” 

ANDERSON STILL ON VERGE OF MILESTONE – Five-time Pro Stock champion Greg Anderson certainly would like to drive his HendrickCars.com Chevy Camaro to his 100th overall victory this weekend – at this same facility Funny Car great John Force earned his 100th in 2002. They would be the only two ever in NHRA history to hit or surpass that plateau. (Force has 154 victories.)

But a victory Sunday would give Anderson not only his fourth triumph here at Houston Raceway Park, but it also would be his first of the season. 

Erica Enders, the four-time series champion and Houston native who’d love nothing more than to win at this last SpringNationals on her home track, has two victories this season. They came at Pomona and Las Vegas, bookending Aaron Stanfield’s and Dallas Glenn’s respective triumphs at Phoenix and Gainesville. And Anderson wants to add his name to the list of 2022 winners. 

“Yes, we've done well here before,” Anderson said, “but it's been a few years since I've seen the winner's circle in Houston.” It was 2016. His other victories at Baytown, Texas, were in 2004 and 2008. 

He said, “That distance between wins just makes you that much more hungry for it. Right now, we're hungry. But we'll try to be patient. We'll continue to work on what we have, and hopefully we'll get [through the weekend] with everything we need to get the job done. Hopefully, we'll put our name in the record book as the last winner there. We showed flashes of being back to on our game in Vegas and come race day I made a mistake as a driver. I made a couple of mistakes on the starting line, and it definitely cost the car some E.T. Definitely had a good car – we were the quickest on both runs on Saturday. We [were] home, working for a couple of weeks, trying to make our engines run better yet, so hopefully we'll not only run strong in qualifying – we'll race good on Sunday."

Anderson took the No. 4 qualifying spot and will start his eliminations against No. 13 Fernando Cuadra. 

HEY, F1, GET A LOAD OF THIS – If NHRA executives are looking for an answer to NASCAR’s exhibition at the Los Angeles Coliseum this past February, looking for something to drum up excitement for drag racing among an entire new audience, Las Vegas is presenting a possible opportunity. And Funny Car racer Alexis De Joria is ready to volunteer. 

Days before this SpringNationals race, she daydreamed a little bit about being allowed to perform a long, smoky burnout right down the famous Las Vegas Strip next fall in front of Formula 1 fans, giving them a peek at the sensory overload they can enjoy across the United States from February through November. Of course, the NHRA and its designated nitro-driver ambassadors would have to jump through a likely complex set of hoops before that even could be on the verge of happening.

But the thought of it was juicy for De Joria, never one to sherk an opportunity to show off the sport. 

“The closest, I think, we could get is maybe doing a burnout at a closed-off, safe-as-possible [place]. Or maybe just bringing a car down there and maybe giving it a couple of throttle whacks would be sufficient,” she said. “I know that would be loud and get everybody’s attention in F1, and I think it would be really great for our sport to get some cross-branding.” 

The driver of the Bandero Premium Tequila Toyota Supra for DC Motorsports said, “I had a chance to do that at the Bristol NASCAR track, and it ended up getting rained out at the beginning. They cut us, and they cut the country singer who was going to do the national anthem. So I haven’t gotten to do that yet. That would be incredible. I love Vegas. It sounds amazing. That would be great. Put in a good word for me.

“Our issue,” De Joria said, “is that we need to get people’s eyes on what we do. We need to give people the experience in any way, shape, or form, whether it’s just starting the car up, giving it a good throttle whack, doing a burnout – just something – to get that feeling, sound, speed, everything across to get people to come to the races. That’s what’s such a big deal. Watching it on TV is incredible. I’m still a fan, even at the end of the day when I lose. But you have to go to a race to fully appreciate what it’s all about. So, bringing that to F1 . . . their minds are going to be blown. Everyone we’ve ever brought to the track from other forms of motorsports is like, ‘Oh my God, you guys are crazy. This is amazing.’ It’s very possible. We’ll see.”

When the pandemic hit and Formula 1 was in a bit of tailspin like every other business, Stefano Domenicali, president and CEO of Formula 1, wisely saw the opportunity – you called it a “take-it-or-leave-it opportunity” – to move forward, and he said, “You cannot leave it.” 

Now, with F1 returning to Las Vegas for the first time since the Caesars Palace Grand Prix on the casino’s parking-lot course in 1981 and ’82, this is another one of those “take-it-or-leave-it” chances. This is a chance to share the beauty of motorsports, a chance to build relationships and establish some cross-pollination networking to make the entire industry strong. 

Four-time NHRA Pro Stock champion Erica Enders doesn’t have a race car with header flames. Hers doesn’t crank out 11,000 horsepower. But the Houston native, who’s the most successful racer at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, seconded De Joria’s suggestion. 

“I might be a little biased, but our sport is so unique,” Enders said. “It provides such a great platform for kids to start on and work their way through the ranks. People like me and JR Todd and Leah Pritchett and Shawn Langdon – these kids got their start in Jr. Drag Racing and worked through the programs and went pro. It’s really neat . . . how many strong, independent, successful women there are, racing on the track. You don’t see us in bikini magazines. You see us holding the Wally [the NHRA trophy, named in honor of the sport’s founder, Wally Parks] at the end of the track and a bottle of champagne. 

“All across the board, our sport is awesome,” she said. “Every ticket’s a pit pass. You can come and stand at the pit and watch us work on our cars, take pictures, talk with the crew – and that’s not something any other motorsport offers. I absolutely love our sport, and to see the stands packed this year is so cool. Gainesville was a sellout. Houston’s on its way to a sellout. The spring race in Las Vegas was packed on Sunday. So, I think the trend is heading in the right direction, and I’m really proud to be associated with it.“

Domenicali recognizes that he and his Formula 1 colleagues, in his words, “need to see what are the other opportunities.” Here’s a creative and huge one. Here’s a chance to set territorial tendencies aside, to unite as motorsports leaders, and to raise awareness for the excitement and variety of auto racing. 

The same is true for the NHRA. Will Formula 1 and the NHRA take it or leave it? 

WHAT WILL HOUSTON VOID BRING? – A recent open letter from Houston Raceway Park (HRP) General Manager Seth Angel indicated this genuinely is the final SpringNationals at his family-owned facility that is set to give way to industrial and commercial sprawl at the start of 2023. 

HRP will carry out its regularly scheduled racing program and events throughout this year. Global logistics solutions firm Katoen Natie’s expansion is planning to swallow the dragstrip land. 

However, a few remarks – maybe hinting, maybe simply wishful thinking, maybe with no hidden meaning intended whatsoever – have come from racers that have fueled some hope that a return to Houston, or at least south of Dallas, might be possible. 

The NHRA has been mum about that, perhaps because it has nothing to contribute to such a conversation. If it knows any plans in the works to fill the void caused by the disappearance of HRP, they aren’t for sharing. Neither has anyone addressed the rumor that popped up this weekend that the days are numbered for yet another prominent venue. Competition Plus is investigating that rumor. 

Pro Stock four-time champion Erica Enders raised eyebrows a bit during an NHRA-sponsored conference call a week or so ago. She briefly said, “I saw they [HRP’s Angel family] renewed the Texas 2000 race for 2023, which is confusing why NHRA wouldn’t be going back.” [“TX2K” is dubbed “The Super Bowl of Street Car Racing.”] 

Top Fuel’s Tony Schumacher began one sentence in a top-end interview Saturday with “Whether it’s the last race or not . . .” 

Schumacher, like Funny Car’s Alexis De Joria, lives not far from COTA, the Circuit of the Americas at Austin, Texas. That’s a facility that hosts a Formula 1 race in October and looks like a strategic facility to add an NHRA-sanctioned dragstrip. And De Joria offered some insight into the NHRA’s past discussions with COTA. 

De Joria said, “Back in the day, the people who run COTA met with the heads of NHRA, Graham Light at the time, and they wanted to know what every length of every track is – from the finish line to the sand trap. They wanted schematics for everything, because they wanted to do that. There’s tons of land over there – I mean, they’re building an amusement park over there. How great would it be to have the two quickest motorsports in the world at one facility, F1 and Top Fuel and Nitro Funny Car? That would be incredible.

“They wanted to make sure they weren’t stepping on anyone’s toes. I think it was a little political,” she said. “There are already two races in Texas, so they didn’t want to compete with the other tracks and whatnot. They said if one track went away, then they would look back into it. And it mostly likely would be a four-wide.” 

De Joria said, “The memories I have from Houston will never be replaced, and hopefully, we’ll close out this weekend with another good showing here. It’s unfortunate to see Houston go. I never like to see a track go away, ever. I love the people. It’s definitely a bummer. Texas is a good place, so maybe there are some good things on the horizon.”

Whether these details suggest serious discussions or any “inside information” – or if such talk is nothing more than rumormongering – remains to be seen. 

200 CLUB – The top five qualifiers in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class exceeded 200 mph – including current champion Matt Smith, who topped 201 (201.37). Others who clocked speeds faster than 200 were Karen Stoffer, Steve Johnson, Eddie Krawiec, and Angie Smith, along with No. 8 starter Angelle Sampey. 

NOT BAD AFTER LAYOFF – L.E. Tonglet, the 2010 Pro Stock Motorcycle champion, fared well Friday in his first appearance on the NitroFish entry since the end of the 2018 season. He took the No. 6 position in the provisional order, and by the end of qualifying Saturday, the Metairie, La., firefighter was 10th with a 6.879-second elapsed time. He’ll start Sunday’s runoffs against Jimmy Underdahl.  

REED BACK ON HIS FEET – Helping teammate Joey Gladstone on the starting line this weekend is a familiar – and welcome – face: that of Cory Reed, who is nearing complete recovery from his nasty accident last September at Charlotte.

Reed suffered a compound fracture of his left leg and his shoulder. He has returned to the racetrack before this weekend but only on the sidelines, shackled by an elaborate brace he referred to as a “bird cage.” That came off in late January.

He said he has undergone six surgeries following the crash, which occurred as he was racing Gladstone in the second round of eliminations and had just clocked a speed of more than 192 mph. And one removed a bone segment because of an infection, leaving him with his left leg shorter than the right.

He's walking without a crutch or cane these days, but as resolved as he is to compete again on a Pro Stock bike, Reed isn’t rushing anything. However, he did say he’s considering acquiring a custom-designed boot for riding again someday. 

JUST SAYIN’ – Steve Torrence wanted to clarify something. He said of competitor Tony Schumacher, “He’s not a Texan. He’s an invitation.”

Torrence also wanted to clarify one more thing: He still is relevant and bad to the bone. After reeling off a 3.693-second elapsed time at 323.66 mph in the third and final qualifying session to take the No. 1 qualifying position away from Brittany Force, FOX reporter Amanda Busick asked Torrence, “Why is this a reminder that we should be talking about you?” 

He replied, “I don’t know if it’s a reminder or not. But I’ll tell you what: Richard Hogan and Bobby Lagana and every one of those Capco Boys have been working on that dragster week in and week out to get it back to where it’s been. We can easily do what we’ve been doin’. But you’ve got to change, and you’ve got to evolve. And when you’ve got cars like Grubby and Brittany over here [crew chief Dave Grubnic and driver Force], who consistently go [3.]62. .63, you’ve got to step your game up. We can do that. We’ve been picking away at it a little bit at a time.”

Torrence thanked his sponsors and said, “We haven’t done the best. It’s only been four races. Everybody is giving me crap about it. They’re like, ‘Hey, what happened to ya?’ We didn’t go anywhere.” 

A MOMENT INSIDE A RACER’S MIND - Racers often field questions about whether a particular race weekend adds pressure. But for Matt Hagan, it’s something he said he lives with constantly. 

“The way I look at it is basically every race there’s so much pressure. I mean, on the minimum it costs about $150,000 per weekend to put that sticker on the side of the car and cover that car up. That's a small haul for someone every weekend that we go out there and race as far as what a sponsorship commitment looks like and takes,” he said. 

“So that pressure is magnified by itself. It's huge in itself. Every time you pull your helmet on knowing that we have to perform. We have to be on top. We got to get on TV. We got to do all this stuff on social media to show value back for our sponsors with this Power Broker and Direct Connection and all the stuff that we're doing there for TSR [Tony Stewart Racing],” he said. 

“So that in itself I think is more pressure to me than anything else that I could put on myself, is just making sure that this is not a waste of a weekend, that our sponsors get value out of every weekend that we show up and they can see the return. When you start putting it into a monetary side of things, what it costs to race one of these cars on the weekend, it's huge pressure in itself. I don't think you can add anything more than that that would be more pressure, in my book, anyway,” Hagan said.

“I'm past the point in life of trying to impress people,” he said. “I want to impress the people that are paying the bills. That's really what's important to me.” 

What takes some of the pressure off for Hagan this year is his comfort level at TSR.

“We’re in a great headspace. Our team is looking great. Tony's just a great guy. Honestly, I didn't know what to expect from him, because you meet a guy that's a three-time [NASCAR] champion, done a lot, has a lot of people around him, supportive people all the time. You don't know how the guy’s going to be or how to take him,” Hagan said. 

“He's just been a super-good dude. He's just one of the good old boys that just needs to win,” he said. “I mean, his mentality is step on their throat, let's get this done, do not hold back. It gives me chill bumps underneath the car like he'll crawl into the car and he’ll fist-bump you like, ‘Let's go. Let's go do driver stuff.’ 

“That kind of stuff to me is what mentality is about and taking it to the next level and making sure that you're bringing your mental game to the table – not that you don't ever before. But when you have someone kind of like rooting you on and really standing behind you . . . I mean, when Don [Schumacher] has four teams, and you're racing a teammate, he's standing in the middle. It’s kind of like ‘Who are you rooting for here?’ So that mentality of having Tony there and Leah there, everybody like on the same page and we're doing the same thing, it drives it to the next level. And that's where I feel like that kind of separates some of what we're doing right now from some of the stuff that we've done in the past,” Hagan said. 

“But just having the mentality of we're going to win – and Tony's like, ‘We're going to throw whatever it takes at this. Parts and pieces, you’ll get what you need.’ There's not that mentality of to do more with less,” he said. “It's ‘What do you need? Let's get it done.’ I want to win, and you can tell, like, this dude wants to win. He wants to be on top. He wants to be a champion this year, and we're going to do everything in our power to make that happen.” 

That’s the challenging and fun kind of pressure for Hagan. 

DID YOU HEAR? – No. 1 Pro Stock Motorcycle starter Karen Stoffer referred to her White Alligator Racing crew chief Tim Kulungian as “Timmy The Torpedo Man.”

Leah Pruett is eyeing her first victory of the year. (Courtesy of Tony Stewart Racing) 



Pro Stock rookie Camrie Caruso is carrying the Houston hopes of many this weekend. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA) 
Pro Stock driver Kyle Koretsky said he’s eager to start helping his family transform Maple Grove Raceway. The Koretskys finalized their purchase of their home track near Reading, Pa. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA)
Reigning Pro Stock champion Greg Anderson, on the verge of earning his 100th victory, is studying how he might capture a fourth here at Houston and his first of the season. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA) 
Brittany Force, the Top Fuel class’ most recent winner, arrived here at Houston Raceway Park as owner of both ends of the track record. (Photo by Roger Richards)
Tony Schumacher, driver of the SCAG Dragster and resident of Austin, grabbed his 85th and most recent victory here at Baytown, Texas. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA) 
Josh Hart is hoping for better luck in his second and final chance to win at Houston Raceway Park. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA) 
Aaron Stanfield is racing in both the Pro Stock and Top Dragster fields this weekend. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA) 
Justin Ashley wants to keep his Texas streak alive. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA) 
Ron Capps has gotten off to a great start as a team owner, with a victory, a runner-up finish, and two No. 1 qualifying position. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA) 
Fans can watch Texas native Alex Laughlin in both the Top Fuel and Top Alcohol Dragster classes this weekend. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA)



Leah Pruett was angry, and nothing was going to console her. 

Her debut with Tony Stewart Racing, at her home track at Pomona, Calif., had been deflating. She was peeved by her sluggish .118-second reaction time and an annoying 17th loss to Antron Brown as they lined up in the season’s first elimination pass, but she shrugged it off and headed to Phoenix. She had enjoyed success there: two victories, including her first in Top Fuel, and one runner-up finish. Moreover, she had set her career-best speed (334.15 mph) there.

Pomona would be a forgettable stumble. And by the time the Camping World Drag Racing Series arrived here at Houston Raceway Park Friday for the SpringNationals, she would be on a hot streak. But that wasn’t how it has gone for the Dodge Power Brokers Dragster driver. She’s an uncharacteristic 14th in the standings heading into this weekend, the lowest she has been since the end of the 2015 season. 

In the first round of the Arizona Nationals at Phoenix, Pruett cut a worse light, .127 seconds. She lost to Josh Hart on a holeshot – despite her best pass of the weekend, and an outstanding one at that: a 3.699-second elapsed time. Her temper got the best of her because, she said, she “just flat-out lost, 100-pecent my fault.” 

So she took it out on her locker in the lounge of her hauler. 

“I share it with the crew guys. You open up all the lockers, looks like a high school. I've got so many collages of all my wins taped up on the back side of the door on the inside, along with a lot of pictures of fans that they give me,” Pruett said. “After Phoenix, I was just so upset because I hadn't figured out a solution to get me right yet. 

“Tony was up there with me and just kind of talking with me. First, we talk as husband and wife in a situation like that, and then we talk about our next steps,” Pruett said. “But I was so mad and only mad at myself and so mad and disappointed for the team [that] I ripped down all of my collages of all the wins that I had. Tony’s like, ‘Stop doing that. Don't do that.’ 

“He knows exactly what I was doing. I've seen him do those things before. I needed a reset, and he's like, ‘You look at those every day when you're in your lounge, and it proves to you that you can do it and you've done it. You can do it again.’ In that moment I forget exactly what I said, but I said, ‘I have done it, but that was yesterday and that's not today. Today's a new day, and clearly what I've been doing isn't working for me now, so I need to rewrite it.’ 

“So I didn't throw them away, by any means. They’re really nice collages,” Pruett said. “They're still in my locker, and I have a very bare lounge now. And every time I see that I'm like, ‘I need to fill it up, time to win this.’” 

And that was Pruett’s mindset as she approached this race at Baytown, Texas, looking for her first victory since last July at Pomona. She’s working at converting her angry energy into a more positive outlook and productive output. 

“I will say my team has far exceeded my expectations for how well we gel. It says something we don't have to work at. Our chemistry is there now,” she said. “Just the physical win lights have yet to come on, but we're really close.” 

Meanwhile, Matt Hagan, her Funny Car teammate at Tony Stewart Racing, won the Gatornationals and has reached the final round at the past three events. He was top qualifier at Phoenix, where he also set low E.T. and top speed of the meet. 

But Pruett, who said she has experienced “some new emotions, for sure,” said she isn’t questioning why Hagan is enjoying early-season success and she is struggling. Hagan volunteered his insight. 

“The transition for me has been seamless because I was able to bring my entire crew over, my crew chief that I've been with that we won multiple championships with . . . I mean, other than one crew guy in a different place. We pretty much have the same team that we've had for multiple years,” he said. “She just had to pretty much build an entire new team. 

“For me, trust is earned. You don't just give someone your trust. They have to earn your trust,” Hagan said. “Same with bottom-end guys. You got to make sure they're not going to not put the rods together and torque them right or hang a rod out of the block or cylinder head guys got to make sure it's run down right or I'll burn a head off and catch you on fire and stuff like that. So I jump in my race car, knowing that these guys have earned my trust over the years and that I'm focused on just one thing: leaving the starting line and keeping it in the groove. 

“When you start over with a new team – and I think this with anybody, not just Leah – that trust has to be earned. It’s earned over an amount of time, over a matter of races, over amount of rounds, over a lot of stuff. So honestly, I feel like what they're doing and where they're at, I know maybe it doesn't reflect the points or whatever.” 

“But,” Hagan said, “For a brand-new startup team with new parts and pieces and new people that still have to earn her trust and she has to earn their trust, I think it's honestly pretty exceptional for what they're doing right now . . . to go, like, ‘Boom, here you go, all new stuff, new people, new parts,’ it's pretty incredible. I remember when I started, my first time and I was still learning to drive the race car and had all new people and all this other stuff and there was a million things running through my head. And now nothing runs through my head. It's like get in, do your job, put your mouthpiece in, and kick their throat in. But all that other stuff has to go away first.” 

Pruett said, “Matt’s worked really hard with creating those relationships with his team. So there's nothing that I look to, like, ‘Why aren't we having the same results?’ Matt has the same equipment and so when you have that same equipment and you know it's running properly, you have the opportunities to tick back on it and improve it and look back at your notes. We are a team with, like, no notes. We are running a much different chassis. So how it moves, how it flexes, weight transfer, all brand new to us. It's different. It's nothing that we've had in the last five years. Let's say that. 

“Our performance pieces, we don't know where their power band lies. So we're in school right now. We are in training with our team. Matt, he's graduated college, he’s out there, he's got a career in it. We're still learning our parts and pieces.” 

Hagan saw that she was frustrated early on and approached her with some encouragement. 

Pruett said, “He goes, ‘Hey, you know, I want you to take this the best way possible . . . I'm here to help. You know, my first two races, I had triple-digit lights and I had squeezed the throttle on both first rounds of eliminations and it's really, like, really in my head. Matt came over and told me some tips about what he does and the exact mental process that he goes through that gets him in that place to be able to stomp on their throats. And so I would try that in qualifying, and then I would be so immersed I would forget to,” she said. “Then I'd come back to Matt, and I'm like, ‘I totally forgot to do the thing.’ And he's like, ‘It's OK. It'll come, and if it feels right it will be there.’ 

“It ended up working and happening and he's taking time out of him stomping everybody into the dirt to come over to see what he can do and ask me if he can help,” Pruett said. “You know, Antron's been that teammate to me for a long time, as well, and there are a couple people. But it's just, man, we really are one team, all team, and it starts with Tony. I get to live it every day, in and out. It's really cool, and it's really fun. This is the most fun I've had racing since I was winning in Pro Mod. It's a really cool time for us to be alive, and I feel like the more that you experience life in different ways, the more invigorating life is. And right now, I feel like Matt and I and Tony are, like, super-invigorated.” 

That showed in Pruett’s run Friday. She wound up sixth in the provisional order, which might not sound stellar but actually was, as the eight quickest put on a clinic for the fans. It signaled that Pruett is headed in the right direction and right now. 

She said her team is “growing, I mean, just like just like a farm – and we have so many great seeds and then Tony's been watering it well. That run right there is really for our Dodge Power Brokers. That is a program that is just growing and starting up right now, and it is massively powerful. So guys, that's for you and for all of my other Dodge enthusiasts who want to power up your cars a little bit more. Man, that just felt so good. You know, it wasn't NASA-fast (went to the Johnson Space Center earlier this week), but that's as fast as we wanted to go right there so that we could pick away at it tomorrow. We're feeling good about this last race at Houston.” 

CARUSO TAKES ON CHALLENGE – Camrie Caruso, driver of the Sand Haulers of America Pro Stock Camaro, has a challenge this weekend – as in a dare, a test. 

Mike Smith, of Titan Racing Engines, is a titan himself in the engine-building kingdom. He (like Caruso’s on-track rival and also-North-Carolina-transplant Greg Anderson) studied with six-time class champion Warren Johnson. And he has issued a challenge to Caruso. 

Caruso said Smith “has said he really wants to win Houston because he has never won a race here. We are trying to win every race, but getting that first win in Houston would be special, for sure.” 

Someone else close to her and her operation also personally would like to see a first Houston victory: her crew chief, Jim Yates. The back-to-back (1996-97) Pro Stock champion, whose second championship came 25 years ago, never earned a Wally trophy here. “The last time I raced Houston we went to the semifinals,” said Yates. But he wouldn’t be surprised if rookie Caruso earned her first victory here, even though it’s just her fifth outing.

She didn’t let Smith and Yates down in Friday qualifying. Caruso sped to the provisional No. 1 qualifying position with a 6.547-second pass at 209.39 mph as she and No. 2 Erica Enders (6.553, 210.87) continued a celebration of “Girl Power.” Before the Pro Stock class took to the track, Gatornationals winner Karen Stoffer and Angie Smith were 1-2 in the tentative Pro Stock Motorcycle line-up. 

“Camrie has impressed me throughout this whole process. We told her we were going to start with the basics, and we have built her up throughout this process. She has taken it all in and I don’t have to go over things more than once with her. I love how smart and competitive she is. She wants to get better all the time and is never satisfied.” 

Her primary sponsor for this race is the Odessa-headquartered company whose owner, Brandon Foster, is a drag-racing fan with children competing in the Jr. Dragster program. Foster and Sand Haulers of America have sponsored Pro Stocker-turned-Top Fuel racer Alex Laughlin in previous years. 

“We know that being involved with Camrie Caruso and Caruso Family Racing is a good fit for us because of the attitude they have and also the interest our customers and drivers have in racing,” Foster said. “Our goal is to get the word out about great career opportunities and promote what a positive experience working with our company can be for any owner/operator looking to drive in Texas or Oklahoma. We are excited to see our race car on the track at Houston Raceway Park.” 

Caruso, who has nicknamed her race car “Marge,” said, “Having a Texas-based company like Sand Haulers of America on our Chevrolet Camaro will hopefully give us some local fan support. Brandon Foster has been great to work with and we really want to highlight what a quality operation he is running and get the word out about all the different aspects of his business. There are a lot of fans and people throughout the NHRA that could benefit from working with Sand Haulers of America either as a customer or a driver.” 

STOFFER, SMITH START ‘LADIES NIGHT’ SHOW – Karen Stoffer and Angie Smith left Gainesville, Fla., last month 1-2 in the final round of the Gatornationals and 1-2 in the Pro Stock Motorcycle standings. As the bike class’ second race of the season got under way, the two left Houston Raceway Park Friday night 1-2 in the provisional line-up. 

After taking the early top-qualifying spot in Pro Stock Motorcycle with a  6.776-second elapsed time at 199.64 mph Friday, White Alligator Racing’s Stoffer said, “Anytime I get to ride this Ray Skillman Auto Group, Big St. Charles motorcycle, I have a blast. Tim [crew chief Kulungian] is great at tuning it. It's smooth. It's fun. I'm just enjoying every pass. Whatever comes up on the board comes up on the board. I'm glad Angie and I have fun racing each other. We're going to throw down every time we do, and I think that everybody sees that, but we have fun. Wish both of us luck and I hope we continue doing this.” 

Angie Smith, who’s No. 2 overnight at 6.798, 199.97, said, “The biggest effort in change for our program is we really found out what was wrong with my motorcycle over the winter. I got Matt to ride the bike last year at one of the last races of the year. He found out that there was something wrong. We went back and fixed it, and I can't be more proud of this Denso team. We have really worked hard, and it's a good testament to my guys, Nate and Cookie Man and everybody that helps us. I can't say enough. They build us up, and we get the pleasure of riding the bike.” 

Stoffer and Smith started a trend that saw Camrie Caruso and Erica Enders top the Pro Stock leaderboard for the day and Brittany Force prevail in a Top Fuel throwdown with Justin Ashley, Austin Prock, Antron Brown, Steve Torrence, Leah Pruett and Tony Schumacher. Force claimed the early No. 1 berth, using a 3.695-second blast at a track-record 333.58 that erased her own 2019 mark. She didn’t top her track-record elapsed time of 3.661 seconds, but she came close, within .034 of a second. 

TIGHT TOP FUEL LINE-UP – Even before the season began, Top Fuel racers were drooling over the quality and parity in their category. And Friday night’s opening session of qualifying for the SpringNationals was about the best evidence that they all knew what they were talking about. The stars at night were quick and bright deep in the heart of Texas. 

After Top Fuel sent four different drivers to the winners circle in as many races this year – Justin Ashley (Pomona), Mike Salinas (Phoenix), Tripp Tatum (Gainesville), and Brittany Force (Las Vegas) – the guns were blazing at Houston. 

Force was dominant, but by just two-thousandths of a second quicker than Ashley (3.695 to 3.697 seconds). Provisional third-place driver Austin Prock trailed Ashley by a mere four-thousandths of a second (at 3.701). But Prock, Antron Brown, and Steve Torrence were within three-thousandths of each other. And Nos. 6, 7, and 8 – Leah Pruett (3.719), Tony Schumacher (3.720), and Mike Salinas (3.722) were covered by three-thousandths, as well. 

That means in the first qualifying session, the top half of the Top Fuel field was separated by 27-thousandths of a second.  

He and the rest of the pro classes will return to four-wide format for the final time this season at the next stop on the circuit, the Circle K Four-Wide Nationals at zMAX Dragway at Concord, N.C. So that means they will have jumped back and forth between two-wide and four-wide racing four times in the first seven events. 

HAGAN LIKES RETURNING TO TWO-WIDE FORMAT – Everyone makes a fuss about the spectacle of four-wide racing, like the series put on display three weeks ago at Las Vegas. But Funny Car points leader Matt Hagan said, “I'm actually excited to run some two-wide and just kind of get back into the groove of things and just get that mentality back of what we see the majority of the time and kind of hone our craft.” 

“I mean, honestly, I would love to see our four-wides go back-to-back so you kind of get in the groove.  Everything we do is about repetition and doing that same thing, out of that mindset and mentality of what you have to do,” Hagan said. However with four-abreast competition, he said, “You got to go out there – ‘Which bulb am I looking at?’ ‘What one in the center lanes that I’m looking at as those other different bulbs and then coming back onto your yellow lights to key off of?’ But yeah, definitely throwing one in between there is kind of like, you know, making it up, I guess. But we don't get to choose, man; we get to show up and drive. So it's kind of, for me, one of those things where mentally I'm ready to go two-wide racing right now. I know what I got to do. My mindset is just like what we do the majority of the time. I block everything out and focus what’s on hand. You take basically what's in front of you every round. 

“I talk to myself in the car. I'm looking at what's going on and who's running in front of me, how the cars are moving, and whether it's getting sucked in or pushed out or, different things that are happening,” he said. “My crew chief [Dickie Venables] is key to me on what he’s seeing out there and what these cars are doing. There's so much chatter in my ear all the way up till we start the car: a lot of stuff that I'm keying off of and thinking about to make the run and to keep it in the groove and do what I need to do to get it to the finish line. 

“So, yeah, for me, four-wide is crazy, and there's so much stuff going on. But right now, I get to slow it back down and go back to what I'm used to doing for the last 15 years of my life and really focus on that two-wide race. And then we'll get to Charlotte when we get to Charlotte. But right now it's going back into that mentality of repetition, doing the same thing every time, getting that two lane mentality,” Hagan said. 

The SpringNationals will be a homecoming for Venables. He grew up here and started racing there with his dad, Dick. Hagan will run a special decal to honor Dickie’s father, who passed away last Dec. 29. In 1960, Dick Venables went to work as an automotive technician for Taylor Exploration. In 1962, he purchased the shop and started Southwest Brake & Wheel Alignment Service. He retired in 2006 after 44 years in business. He had a passion for drag racing, and although it was just a hobby that he and his friends enjoyed, he was a pioneer in the sport. He paved the way for son Dickie to make a career in the NHRA for the past 40 years. After Dick Venables passed away, his family suggested the Tony Stewart Foundation for those who wished to make a donation in Dick’s name. The mission of the Tony Stewart Foundation is to provide grant funding to well-qualified organizations serving children who are critically ill or physically disabled, animals at-risk or endangered, and drivers injured in motorsports. 

“Dickie and his dad are so special to me,” Hagan said. “Dickie grew up around drag racing with his dad, and I was able to meet Dick several times. In Houston, they would always barbeque and bring ribs over for the team. Dickie’s dad was a super-cool guy. I can see why Dickie got into drag racing – because his dad loved it so much. Dickie and I sat down at the start of the year. We dedicated this whole season to his dad, not just one race win. We’re hoping we can get him a championship, but either way, we’ll be honoring him. Dick instilled some great qualities into Dickie, and they show every weekend on the racetrack. It’s a special race weekend because Dickie is going to have a lot of family at the race. With me getting my first race win at Houston, it would be special to get another win at our final race there to honor Dick.” 

Former Pro Stock driver Kenny Koretsky (left) and son Kyle Koretsky, the current Pro Stock racer, are excited about their family’s new venture. They are the new owners of Maple Grove Raceway, near Reading, Pa. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA)

KORETSKY’S FOCUS DIVIDED THIS WEEKEND – Just as Houston Raceway Park is preparing to phase out its 34-year NHRA association and give way to commercial sprawl, storied East Coast dragstrip Maple Grove Raceway is getting new life. 

The racetrack near Reading, Pa., has changed hands officially this week, from the third-generation Stauffer family to the suburban-Philadelphia-based Koretsky family. Former Pro Stock owner-driver Kenny Koretsky and sons Kenny Jr. and current Pro Stock tour regular Kyle say they’re geared up for the Countdown to the Championship opener, the Sept. 15-18 Pep Boys Nationals. 

“It’s still kind of a surreal feeling,” Kyle Koretsky said as he tried to focus on this weekend’s reportedly final SpringNationals at Baytown, Texas. “Our family bought a facility we’ve been going to our entire lives and doing what we love to do. We see this as a huge business opportunity, and we’re looking to grow the business and give the racers a great experience. We’ve got a lot of great ideas and we’re looking forward to this.” 

Maple Grove Raceway, one of the most scenic settings for Camping World Drag Racing Series action, also will host the May 27-29 Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series regional race. 

“I grew up racing there,” Kyle Koretsky said, “and I watched everyone race at the track. I have so many good memories there, from racing Jr. Dragster and growing up to racing Pro Stock there for the first time last year. It’s such a cool atmosphere, being out in the country. You come up over that hill and see the track and it’s just so cool. It’s going to be a lot of time and commitment, but this is a dream come true for our family. 

“The fans in that area are diehard fans. They love drag racing, especially Pro Stock. It’s a great facility. The track is fast, and it’s just a great vibe when you roll over that hill and get to the track. We just want to continue to enhance that experience for everyone,” he said. 

Koretsky said his family will schedule immediate upgrades that include general clean-up, landscaping, paving, and restroom overhauls.

“The sky is the limit,” Koretsky, who’ll turn 33 years old in two weeks, said. “You look at some of those historical pictures on the wall at the track, and it’s something we just want to continue from generation to generation. We’ve got a lot of big ideas. It’s such a family-friendly environment at the track, and we’re really looking forward to this opportunity.” 

Josh Hart is hoping for better luck in his second and final chance to win at Houston Raceway Park. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA)

ONE LAST CHANCE FOR POSITIVE MEMORY – Top Fuel owner-driver Josh Hart said, “Having the last race in Houston is awesome and terrible at the same time.” He can’t predict if it will be awesome for him and his R+L Carriers Dragster team this weekend. But he definitely can say his previous outing at Baytown was awful: “My only experience in Houston was not good. I would love to go out on a positive note.”

Persistent rain last season left racers with just one of the three qualifying sessions. Hart fared relatively well, qualifying in the top half of the field at No. 7. But he lost his first-round race to Shawn Langdon, the competitor he had beaten just weeks before to win the 2021 Gatornationals, his maiden race. And Hart opened the show with a big fireball right off the launch in that first pairing.

During the off-season, his team built a new dragster, complete with components to make his first full-time run for the Top Fuel championship. However, early-season struggles have hampered his progress. And he’s looking for consistency, he said. But he knows this season he’ll be in a marathon and understands he needs to pace himself. Just the same, Hart has been antsy to get the two-week layoff over and have another shot at getting back in his 2021 groove. 

“This has been two weeks to sit and stew with a lot of ‘should-haves’ and ‘could-haves.’ Bottom line: they don’t call it winning; they call it racing. I will do the best we can [here],” he said. “You hate to see a track go away, but hopefully it is onward and upwards for the series.” 

PROCK ALREADY A WINNER HERE – Montana Brand/Rocky Mountain Twist Dragster Austin Prock is making just his second appearance at this facility. But he already has two victories here – as a crew member. He said the racetrack has “a special place in my heart” because he won’t forget “my first ever in 2018 when I worked on Brittany Force’s dragster and the second, in 2021, was my first win with my dad on Robert Hight’s team.” Prock said he’s “excited to get back in the seat. I feel like we're on the right track to perform with the best. I can't wait to see how our cards fall.” 

NOT ONE-TRICK PONIES – Several pro racers are competing also in Lucas Oil Series classes this weekend. Top Fuel’s Billy Torrence is going for another Super Comp victory, and Alex Laughlin is driving in the Top Alcohol Dragster category. Houston resident Rodger Brogdon is going to take one last crack at a Comp Eliminator trophy, as well as at another one in Pro Stock. Two other Pro Stockers are pulling double duty: Bo Butner in Stock Eliminator and Aaron Stanfield in Top Dragster (while his father Greg Stanfield takes his chances in Super Stock). 

ASHLEY FEELS LUCKY IN TEXAS – Third-year pro Justin Ashley, looking to make history with a trophy from this final SpringNationals, also is eager to keep his Texas streak going. Ashley, driver of the Phillips Connect, Vita C Energy Dragster, won the Top Fuel final last October at the FallNationals at Dallas. He said he’s looking forward to visiting one last weekend with the passionate Houston fans: “Now that it’s the last NHRA event at Houston Raceway, that interaction and this race as whole becomes that much more significant.”

MORRISON HELPING YOUNG RACERS – Top Fuel racer Joe Morrison hasn’t made his 2022 Camping World Drag Racing Series debut yet, but the Leverich Racing driver is working hard away from the racetrack to help grow the sport. In cooperation with New Jersey’s Island Dragway, he will help 25 young drivers take a big step up the ladder May 7 at an NHRA Jr. Street instructional and licensing event from 8:30 a.m. - 12:30 p.m. 

The event at the Great Meadows, N.J., venue is a collaboration with track operator Melissa Milano and EJK Insurance founder Ed Krajewski. A handful of partners (MyRacePass, Hagerty, Summit Racing Equipment, RacingJunk, PennGrade1 Racing Oil, and AmericanaGlobal.com) have pitched in to help offset the $50 entry fee. 

The NHRA established its Jr. Street youth racing program for 13-16-year-olds in 2015 as a way for them to transition from Jr. Drag Racing League competition. It gives teenage boys and girls the opportunity to race against their peers in full-body street vehicles with an adult co-driver as teammate. It provides aspiring racers with a cost-effective entry point into drag racing, as they compete in daily drivers.

The purpose of the May 7 event is to provide a full-scale introduction to NHRA drag racing by guiding the students and their parents through all phases of competing at an NHRA-sanctioned racetrack. 

The agenda will start with a tech inspection to explain to aspiring racers and family members the importance of safety before hitting the racetrack. Instruction then will proceed to the starting line of the racetrack, where Morrison will teach students the basics of bracket racing, track protocol, and etiquette, along with a few tips for concentration skills and consistency.

Everyone who successfully meets the license requirements also will receive an entry to compete in the Jr. Street division at the track's Summit Racing E.T. Series event later that day.  

"As a Jersey guy, I was raised to embrace the importance of never forgetting where you came from and to share your passion with anyone who will listen," Morrison said.

He cut his teeth in the sport at Island Dragway in the late 1980s and still owns the track's Alcohol Nostalgia Funny Car speed record at 215 mph. 

"The NHRA Jr Street program is the perfect way for parents and kids to enjoy time together while bringing in new drivers to our great sport," Morrison said. "To run this program at my home track of Island Dragway is just perfect. 

"I'm lucky to work with such amazing partners who understand that it takes financial investment to seed an opportunity like this," he said. "The fact that our partners were immediately on board with this program shows their dedication to the future of our sport. We’ve gathered inspiration from other NHRA tracks, such as Maple Grove, Tucson, and New England Dragway, who have established exceptional grass-roots Jr. Street programs.

"Our goal is to raise the bar for awareness and growth of the NHRA Jr Street program," he said. Then, with a reference to one of his favorite movies, This is Spinal Tap he said, "In fact, we want to turn the knobs to 11."

Morrison draws on his own drag-racing connections. Five years before he was born, drag-racing legend "Big Daddy" Don Garlits officially broke the 200-mile-per-hour barrier at Island Dragway Aug. 2, 1964. Morrison, 52, said, "Like any other competitive racer – I’m looking to follow in Big Daddy’s footsteps of breaking barriers here at Island Dragway."

Island Dragway is located at 20 Island Road, Great Meadows, N.J. 07838. To register online for the event, please visit https://www.eventbrite.com/e/jr-street-licensing-day-tickets-321399312997. To learn more about the Jr. Street program, please visit https://www.nhra.com/jr-street. 

HIGHT CREW CHIEF, GWYNN HONORED – Chris Cunningham, crew chief with Jimmy Prock for Robert Hight’s Auto Club Camaro Funny Car, recently was inducted into the Miami Hollywood Speedway Park Hall of Fame. Cunningham began drag racing at age 14. His dad, Mike Cunningham, worked with Jerry and Darrell Gwynn. Chris Cunningham has about 40 years of NHRA experience and worked for several years for Bob Tasca III’s Funny Car team before moving to his current job with John Force Racing.

Gwynn had his own reason to celebrate. He was named earlier this month as a member of the 2023 induction class to the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America (MSHFA). The announcement came at the “Stand 21 Racing Goes Safer” seminar at the NTT IndyCar Series’ Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach. The induction ceremony will be next March 6-7 at Daytona Beach, Fla. 

Gwynn’s Hall of Fame classmates will be Zora Arkus-Duntov, the father of the Corvette and Corvette racing (Sports Cars); longtime USAC official and safety pioneer Henry Banks (Historic); America’s most successful enduro racer, Dick Burleson (Motorcycles); air racing superstar Art Chester (Aviation); innovative NASCAR crew chief Ray Evernham (Stock Cars); early NASCAR fan favorite Fonty Flock (Historic); land speed record-setter Ab Jenkins (Speed Records); and Drs. Stephen Olvey and Terry Trammell (Open Wheel), who revolutionized racetrack emergency services. 

MSHFA President George Levy said, “Part of the reason we wanted to make the announcement at the Racing Goes Safer seminar is because several members of the Class of 2023 have played a major role in improving racing safety.”