2022 NHRA U.S. NATIONALS - FUNNY CAR NOTEBOOK
FINALLY: CAPPS GETS FIRST U.S. NATIONALS VICTORY - Relief. Joy. Satisfaction. Fulfillment. Success.
It is hard to pick just one word to describe the overwhelming flood of emotions that washed over 28-year veteran racer Ron Capps on Monday after a near-perfect performance at the 2022 Dodge Power Brokers NHRA U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park.
After opening the weekend with a heavy collision with the wall on Friday night, Capps was flawless in his next nine passes behind the wheel of his NAPA AutoCare-backed nitro-burning Funny Car, earning the top qualifier award, a win in the Pep Boys NHRA Funny Car Allstar Callout specialty race and, ultimately, the U.S. Nationals on an emotion-filled Monday afternoon.
“I’ve tried every possible scenario (to win) coming here. When I drove for (Don Prudhomme) I tried acting like it is the biggest race in the world, obviously that never worked. I’ve come in here and said it is just another race, and that never worked,” Capps said. “We’ve come close. We’ve had great race cars and great weekends. It is just an emotional place to come to. There are so many memories here, good and bad. Crazy things just happen at Indy. And after last year I said ‘when it is time, it is time.’
“Today I was just trying to act like a driver and show up and make my crew chief proud. That is what I have been doing for 27 years no matter who’s car that I drove.”
Entering the weekend winless at the sport’s biggest race Capps, the second-winningest driver in the class, put together a race for the ages on Monday to avenge a stunning loss at this race one year ago. Mowing through the field courtesy of his top qualifier status, Capps ultimately matched up with points leader and six-time race winner this season Robert Hight in the final.
In what was shaping up to be a tremendous drag race, Hight never had a chance to show his hand, striking the tires as soon as the light turned green and limping to the finish line with an unassuming 7.649-second lap. Capps, meanwhile, put the finishing touches on a great afternoon with a 3.913-second pass at 327.98 mph in his NAPA AutoCare Toyota GR Supra Funny Car.
“I rolled it in and stepped on the gas. I never saw him, but I expected that car to pop its nose out at any given time,” Capps said. “I have been disappointed so many times and I kept waiting and waiting and then my win light came on. I just couldn’t believe it.”
The win was Capps’ first at the U.S. Nationals after finishing in the runner-up position in 2017 and 2021. He did have a win at the Indianapolis-based track in 2020, but that win did not take place in the premier event.
This season is also Capps’ first as a team owner after many years with Don Schumacher Racing. After winning the championship last year, Capps formed Ron Capps Motorsports and came into this season not quite knowing what to expect. Now he has a number of firsts to his name as both a team owner and driver.
“As a team owner, this is a pretty cool moment. You can’t script it any better,” Capps said. “To win the first race with this Toyota Supra (in April) and win Indy and the Callout and be the No. 1 qualifier, if you would have told me that in January when I was pulling my hair out wondering how I was going to get through, I wouldn’t have believed it. It was like it was meant to be.”
Capps advanced to Monday’s final round off the strength of three bracket-like passes of 3.886, 3.883 and 3.887 in wins over Dale Creasy Jr., J.R. Todd and John Force. It was an impressive performance for crew chiefs Dean “Guido” Antonelli and John Medlen, who found a near-perfect combination to advance this car to the finals of the U.S. Nationals in back-to-back years.
“The car was a bracket car,” Capps said. “I can’t tell you how hard it is for a crew chief to do that with a 12,000 horsepower motor to be that consistent.”
The win was Capps’ third of the season and the 71st of his career
The moment that Capps knew that he had something special going came in a round two win over Todd. After the driver of the DHL Toyota posted the quickest pass of the weekend - a 3.856-lap in round one - Capps lost lane choice and was forced from his comfort zone for the first time all weekend. But Antonelli and Melden were able to make the necessary adjustments, while Todd lost traction early in the run.
“These are two tough lanes to navigate. You can never relax here like some of the tracks we go to that are just perfect. You have to be on your game every single moment,” Capps said. “We stayed in that left lane throughout the Callout. Guido said ‘let’s keep the left lane today’ and then we lost it in the second round. There we were in the right lane and I thought, ‘oh boy, here we go again.’ But Guido did his thing and we went right down the right lane.”
Hight, looking for his fourth win at the U.S. Nationals, had wins over John Smith, Matt Hagan and Bob Tasca III to finish in the runner-up position in his Automobile Club of Southern California Chevrolet Camaro SS Funny Car.
After the race, Capps was quick to compliment the work that Hight and crew chief Jimmy Prock have done this season in raising the bar for the class, ultimately leading to the other teams stepping up their game to keep pace.
“That AAA team with Robert is the team to beat and they have raised the bar for everybody, including us. They have made us better,” Capps said. “Guido and Medlen and Jimmy Prock, after working all those years together, they love to beat each other. And the two people who benefit the most are Robert and I because we get to strap into these things and get it on.”
Ironically, Capps’ historic weekend began as poorly as possible. During the premier Friday night qualifying session, Capps stayed in the throttle a little too long as his machine got out of the groove and had a heavy brush with the right-side wall. While the team was able to move forward with the same chassis, they were forced to go to a back-up body which, ironically, had its own history this season.
“I’ve been a mess since Friday night. I was so mad at myself for putting that Darlington stripe on that Toyota Supra,” Capps said. “We found out what the problem was, but I felt like I could have caught it and I am better than that. I was bummed that we ruined the body a little bit. That body we ran today is the same one we blew up in the first round in Bristol and we came back with that body on and won the Bristol race. That body is actually undefeated.”
Monday also saw some history made as, for the first time in NHRA history, all of the higher qualified cars in the Funny Car category advanced in their matchups.
With so much history surrounding the famed U.S. Nationals, the neatest moment for Capps personally came just prior to the final round. As he was preparing to get in the car, he received a text message from legendary NHRA drag racer Don “the Snake” Prudhomme that helped him focus before the matchup.
“The text said, ‘one more to go, go get ‘em kid,’” Capps said. “As I’m getting ready I look over and see the (entrance) arch. It is Indy. And I am getting a text from a guy that I built models of and played with (his) hot wheels. It was a weird thing. I put the phone away and put my helmet on. It pumped me up.”
SUNDAY SWEEP -- Ron Capps did it all on Sunday.
He produced the quickest lap of the day. He earned his first No. 1 qualifier at the NHRA U.S.Nationals. And he earned the win in the Pep Boys NHRA Funny Car Allstar Callout.
Capps defeated Matt Hagan in the final round of the specialty race on Sunday with a 3.936-second pass at 330.47 mph in his NAPA Auto Care Toyota, winning on a holeshot as Hagan crossed the stripe in his Dodge Power Brokers Charger with a quicker 3.900, 328.86 mph.
The win was Capps’ fourth in a specialty race to go with a trio of Bud Shootout titles.
“It is cool to win on a holeshot as a driver,” Capps said. “And to do it for this much money is awesome. Overall it is a huge day for our Ron Capps Motorsports organization and all of our partners to do this. It is a little bit of a competitor in Pep Boys and we have the Auto Care car this weekend, but I thank Pep Boys so much for doing this. It really puts the U.S. Nationals back to the way it used to be. We haven’t had this much excitement like we have had this weekend since we had the Bud, Skoal and Traxxas shootouts. That really brought a new element to this race.”
As if that weren’t enough, Capps and crew chiefs Dean “Guido” Antonelli and John Medlen also stole the top qualifier award away from Robert Hight on Sunday, running a 3.895-second pass at 334.15 mph in the first round of the Callout and fourth round of qualifying. That run propelled him over Hight’s 3.866 at 327.27 mph by two thousandths of a second.
“That ‘86’ that Guido, Medlen and the NAPA Auto Care guys put down, I knew it was on a pretty good run,” Capps said. “When the clutch came in and it just planted me in the trunk of that Supra I knew it was going to be decent. I had no idea it would be an 86 in those conditions. That was big.”
With a trophy already in hand, Capps will shift his focus to winning his first NHRA U.S. Nationals on Monday when he faces Dale Creasy Jr. in round one.
HAGAN TALKS NEW TEAM, NEW RESOURCES AND SETTLES THE DEBATE OF DRIVER VS. CREW CHIEF - It is a debate as old as the sport itself.
Who is more responsible for a great run? Is it the driver, who has to be methodical in doing everything just right during the burnout, staging, reaction times, wrestling their machine down the track and then getting it stopped, all in just a few breaths?
Or is the crew chief, who spends hours studying graphs, weather reports, track temperatures and makes sudden, last-second calls on the starting line based on ever-changing track conditions?
If you ask three-time world champion Matt Hagan, he says he knows the answer.
“It is absolutely the crew chief,” Hagan said emphatically. “Those guys, the variables they have to deal with are unbelievable. There is so much chatter in my ear every run up until we start the car that, sometimes, I just want to unplug the radio. They are constantly changing stuff – the tire pressure, wing height, how much alcohol to put in the car, fuel flows, clutch flows -- it is constant. And it changes as clouds come over the track and it gets cooler, or they go away and it heats up. There is so much more pressure on the crew chief for sure.”
But that’s not to say that the driver is just along for the ride. Hagan was quick to point out that many fans watching at home have no idea just what goes into a three-second pass at over 330 miles per hour.
“For me, I like to unplug and focus on what I need to do. I talk to my assistant crew chief about the track, things like is it dragging people in or is it pushing people out? Where are people coming loose? Conversations that put the run into perspective,” Hagan said. “The last race at Brainerd when everyone was coming loose, the last thing I told myself was, ‘Be patient. Wait on the car to recover. Let the tire calm down before you pedal it.’ I did all of those things, but (Alexis DeJoria) was out there farther than we were when we smoked the tires. It was just one of those things, as a driver, you have some things to key off of to know what you need to do, but our job is pretty simple.
“Still, there is a lot going on that people don’t think about or understand. Taking care of the clutch backing it up. How far you do the burnout. How long you are out on the pedal. How much brake pressure to hold. How you stage the car. It is a lot of stuff that, as a driver, you have to be consistent with. But the pressure remains on the crew chief.”
Of course, the real answer to that question is probably somewhere in the middle. It is an elaborate dance involving ever-changing variables, but it is a dance Hagan is quite familiar with after many years paired with crew chief Dickie Venables.
At the end of the day, every perfect tuneup and last-minute call on the car can only go as far as the skill of the driver knowing what to do and making sure that every pass is as consistent as possible.
“You have to become a machine in there,” Hagan said. “I am a huge variable to Dickie. If I change stuff up, everything changes. Most of the time the parts and pieces are pretty straight forward. You get to run parts for a while before they cycle out. But if I start changing up what I am doing with longer burnouts and it heats up the clutch or I am out on the pedal more and we have less fuel in the car, stuff like that, it changes everything. Being consistent as a driver helps him be a better tuner to tune around.”
And the ultimate test of that relationship of man versus machine takes place on Friday nights under the lights when crew chiefs and drivers have an opportunity to shine the brightest. It is on those cooler tracks and with favorable racing conditions that crew chiefs are able to push harder and
the drivers are able to strut their stuff.
And for Hagan, a five-time No. 1 qualifier and track record holder at Indianapolis, that is what he enjoys the most.
But Hagan’s Friday night did not exactly go according to plan. About halfway into his run, a run he believed was on pace to challenge for the top spot, Hagan’s parachutes deployed while the engine was still in full song, creating a unique look as the parachute pulled against an 11,000
horsepower, nitro-burning machine under full power.
“Unfortunately, the way the parachutes are routed up into the body, it got pulled out. It felt like you threw a boat anchor out there. It didn’t feel like it dropped any cylinders, it just felt like it was looping the tires a little bit. I didn’t know what had happened. It would have been a good run, it was just an unfortunate start to the weekend,” Hagan said. “We’ve had a lot of issues here lately. So we wrangled the guys in and had a group meeting to talk about paying more attention to what we are doing with our parts and pieces on the car.
“I think sometimes it is easy to rest on your laurels a little bit with a new group and we have to get everyone back together, get our pom-poms out and talk about what we can do to improve.”
But the great thing about this race is that it is a marathon, not a sprint. Hagan has had an opportunity to incrementally improve in each pass this weekend and will have another chance at a trophy Monday. He qualified seventh on Sunday with a 3.892 at 333.41 mph.
“It is obviously a special race. You don’t want to ever leave this sport without winning Indy, Hagan said. It is our biggest race of the year. There are several races on the tour that I consider special races to me, but Indy is one of them. To be out here and have the caliber of car that I have this year and knowing I have a shot of coming out here and have a chance to win Indy again is pretty special.”
Selfishly, Hagan will admit that he would love a second victory at the U.S. Nationals if, for no other reason than to enjoy it properly. When Hagan won his only trophy at Indianapolis back in 2016, an illness prevented Hagan from fully celebrating the win with his team.
And his lasting memory from that race is a story not suited for the faint of heart.
“In 2016 when I won it I was pretty sick. It was one of those things where I thought God was punishing me because I kept turning the win light on and I just wanted to go home and sleep,” Hagan said with a laugh. “I had an awful cold. The thing I remember most is when the win light came on and I pulled the parachutes, snot hit the visor. I was like, ‘Man, this is awful.’ The guys wanted to celebrate and I just wanted to crawl up in a corner and go to sleep.
“I would love nothing more than to win Indy this weekend and really be able to celebrate it and take it all in.”
Hagan comes into this year’s Dodge Power Brokers NHRA U.S. Nationals second in points, having collected three wins in six final rounds. He has traded the points lead with Robert Hight, but a string of first-round defeats during the Western Swing pushed Hagan back down the pecking order.
But that is where a great duo like Hagan and Venables comes into play with a string of favorable tracks that fit their racing style coming up on the calendar during the Countdown to the Championship.
“We have been struggling with the heat, there is no way around that,” Hagan said. “Our Western Swing was really rough. We went out in the first round at all three races. We went out there and won three races, had a bunch of runner-ups, and were leading the points and then you go out to the Western Swing and you can’t hit your tail. These race cars are very humbling and they bring you back down to earth. They make you realize you still have work to do.
“We have work to do in our hot-weather tuneups, but one thing I know and I am confident about is Dickie Venables running extremely well when it is cool. And we are coming up on those cool races. That is why we are so competitive in the Countdown. And, of course, I have been blessed to keep my group together through it all and that is why we have been so successful.”
After winning championships in 2011, 2014 and 2020, Hagan made a big leap during the offseason joining the upstart Tony Stewart Racing team and, so far, the team hasn’t missed a beat. Hagan admits that the new team has a looser attitude, while still possessing a competitive fire that keeps them motivated during a long NHRA Camping World Drag Racing
“I am really proud to be here at Tony Stewart Racing. To drive for a caliber a guy as Tony is amazing. We are having a great time and it makes you really want to show up and win,” Hagan said. “The atmosphere that this team provides for my group of guys and myself is really special. That is why I am honored to be here. Tony gives us everything we need to win. To see the work that Tony and Leah (Pritchett) have done over the offseason, building a team from scratch, and bringing our stuff over here, it just shows the type of people that Tony surrounds himself with. I am excited because I know what we have with this car.
“We definitely have more parts and pieces than we had at DSR and if we need it, Tony says get it. I wouldn’t say there is not a budget, but if you can justify it and explain how it is going to improve performance he is all about it.
“That man is motivated by trophies and that is it. He wants to be here to win. If we don’t win for him, he will find someone else who can.”
While Stewart brings with him decades of experience as a multi-time NASCAR champion, Hagan said that his hunger to learn more drives him as team owner. Stewart is learning more about the straight-line racing business every day.
“He is one of those guys who is a see it, do it, figure-it-out kind of guy. He is very methodical. I will come back and tell him what happened on a run and he will say, ‘I saw this here’ or ‘You did that there.’ He is paying attention and he is always observing, which is why he is so good,” Hagan said. “It was impressive to me that Tony is not just out here shaking hands and signing autographs, he really is paying attention to what we are doing and how we are doing it and learning.”
Of course, Stewart is not the only one still learning about this sport. With every pass, Hagan is still learning new things about how he can improve as a driver.
“I learn every lap. It is so expensive to run and we don’t have a ton of test passes, so it takes more time and energy and effort to do what we do. We take the time to break down every run we make, whether it is qualifying or race day,” Hagan said. “I’ve seen so many people come and go in the sport, I don’t really know why I am lucky enough to still be here. You see all of these people cycle through, for me to be here 14 or 15 years now is incredible.
“It is really hard to stay out here and to have such a great sponsor and now TSR and a great team owner, everything is at our fingertips to be able to win. I am excited for the years to come. We can still do big, big things even though we’ve already done big things.”
So how long until we see Stewart – who is known to race anything, anywhere, anytime – behind the wheel of an 11,000-horsepower Funny Car? Hagan said he is working on it.
“I’ve been trying to rope him into driving one of these Funny Cars and he says he doesn’t want anything to do with it,” Hagan said with a laugh. “If I keep pushing him, he will eventually get in there. I already got him to warm it up once. That is a step in the right direction in my mind.”
PEP BOYS CALLOUT SEMIFINAL -- The epic final round between former Don Schumacher Racing teammates was set up by two anticlimactic semifinals.
Ron Capps earned lane choice in the final with the low elapsed time of the round with a 3.896-second pass at 332.59 mph to easily dispatch of a tire-smoking John Force. Force coasted across the stripe with a 5.162 at 147.65 mph.
In the other showdown, Hight lost traction immediately, allowing Hagan to jump out to a huge advantage. Midway through the run, Hagan began to skate around the track, but was able to stay in it for the win. Hagan ran 4.180, 255.73 in the winning effort.
PEP BOYS CALLOUT FIRST ROUND -- It was all favorites advancing in round one of the Pep Boys NHRA Funny Car Allstars Callout.
Ron Capps made the most noise in the round, taking a win over Tim Wilkerson while simultaneously earning the No. 1 spot on the Funny Car ladder for Monday. Capps’ 3.864-second pass at 333.58 mph was the best performance of the weekend thus far, earning him a win over the man who defeated him in the final of the U.S. Nationals one year ago. Wilkerson had a 3.920 at 329.50 mph in the losing effort.
Robert Hight had the next-best lap of the round in the most anticipated contest of the day.
Coming into the event as the No. 1 seed, Hight called out the hottest driver on the NHRA tour Bob Tasca III in round one. And that callout proved advantageous as Hight took lane choice to a 3.870-second pass at 332.26 mph in earning the win. Tasca, meanwhile, lit the tires at the hit and never got going.
In the other first round matchups, Matt Hagan easily defeated Alexis DeJoria with a 3.895- second pass at 334.15 mph after DeJoria’s car began to shake and she clicked it off, and John Force defeated Cruz Pedregon with a 3.931 at 327.82 mph to a 4.031 at 311.49 mph.
THE BUSINESS OF DRAG RACING -- Drag racing is a sport not just won on the track.
It is not just won in the pit area or back home at the shop. Success in drag racing starts behind closed doors with handshakes, signed agreements, and mutual understanding.
The fact of the matter is the best racers in the world don’t get where they are on skill alone. It takes savvy marketing men and women, successful public relations and relationships with the right people and businesses to turn driver skill into actual round wins.
Paul Lee knows that fact perhaps better than most.
A longtime racer and savvy businessman himself, who owns his own Paul Lee Racing operation alongside a trio of companies under the Wharton Automotive Group, which includes McLeod Racing, FTI Performance and Silver Sport Transmissions, Lee knows that to take his operation
to the next level, he needs the right people by his side.
“I am passionate for this sport,” a confident Lee said. “I’ve loved it since I was a little kid and I am still that little kid today almost 50 years later. This has not been an overnight thing. I’ve been working toward this since I was 13 years old. The lifetime commitment that I’ve made to doing what we are doing is something I am proud of, but I hope for more and that is what we are out here doing now.”
Lee recently paired with industry executive Steven Cole and added savvy marketing person, Top Fuel driver and team owner Krista Baldwin to the Paul Lee Racing team. Baldwin, who not only drives the McLeod-sponsored dragster, but is also the Creative Director for the Wharton Automotive Group, helps take this race team from a single-car operation to a hopeful megateam in the making. Lee hopes marketing a pair of cars from each of the premier nitro categories within the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series is the next step in the team’s progression.
“What I see, when you are out there marketing drag racing, you have the top two classes. So when you are working with a marketing partner now, you have a two-for-one,” Lee said. “Having a Funny Car and a dragster is the ultimate marketing tool in the sport of drag racing.”
Cole has been involved in professional motorsports for over 25 years, which includes time in NHRA, NASCAR and IndyCar. The past 10 years he has worked exclusively in drag racing with high-profile race teams such as John Force Racing, Stringer Performance and with the IHRA drag
Lee, who met Cole through a mutual friend – one of the most well-known drivers in NHRA history – hopes this pairing will help take Paul Lee Racing to another level on the track.
“We have some big changes as far as the business part of our team. That is led by bringing in and working with Steve who has been a longtime friend of mine for many years,” Lee said. “We were actually introduced through Tom ‘The Mongoose’ McEwen years and years ago. He was a mentor to both of us. He always said, ‘You guys need to work together’ and now here we are finally working together. The only sad thing is the Mongoose isn’t here to see all of this come together.”
And one of the first moves Cole made when he came to Paul Lee Racing was to help bring Baldwin into the mix and begin marketing a diverse two-car team.
“Being at a few different drag racing teams at the highest level for the last 10 or 12 years of my career, it is important for businesses to look at the broadcast on Fox and see potential. Especially on the business-to-business side, getting those individuals to look at these nitro cars and say, ‘These are pretty badass,’” Cole said. “When I was at John Force Racing, we only had Funny Cars. When Brittany (Force) decided she wanted to run a dragster, that was the lightning in the bottle that people were excited about. People got to see a dragster and a Funny Car with the same team. I saw that and went to businesses to offer them something that a lot of race teams can’t.
“Taking nothing away from the other pro classes, people want to be with the nitro cars. And, from a business side, there is no better person to work with than Paul because he understands the business of racing and is very successful in the business world already.”
And for Lee, there was no one he wanted to partner with from a racing standpoint more than Baldwin. She has been with Lee’s company since she was an intern in college, and has become an emerging leader with the team. More recently, Baldwin – the granddaughter of legendary drag
racer Chris “the Golden Greek” Karamesines – made her Top Fuel debut in 2021, and has quickly become a media darling on the track.
“Krista has been with McLeod since she was in college. Now she is working for the company full-time and she has grown within the company,” Lee explained. “The choice was simple because Krista is part of our family and to have her as the dragster was a pretty exciting addition.”
Now Lee begins his quest to build something special at Paul Lee Racing with a team in place that, he believes, can take his operation to new heights both on and off the track. And he is already thinking about the future of the team beyond even himself.
“Our ultimate goal is to have a multiple-car team, to be like a DSR used to be. Ultimately, two dragsters and two Funny Cars is our goal,” Lee said. “We are building. This is our start. I’m a lot older than Krista, who is just starting out. There will be a time where I won’t be driving anymore, but I’ll have a young driver in the car. These are things I am already thinking about.
“I have a passion and a commitment to the sport. You need marketing partners to do that, and that is what we are here to do. We have to do well on the track and show them what we can do. Not all of these marketing partnerships are based on performance, but it definitely helps.”
TODD CALLS OUT THE FIELD -- J.R. Todd doesn’t have to worry about calling anyone out this weekend.
Instead, he is calling out the field.
Todd did not qualify for the inaugural Pep Boys NHRA Funny Car Allstar Shootout this weekend, instead giving the two-time U.S. Nationals champion a chance to focus on a bigger prize – a trophy Monday.
“We have been able to go out there and make some good, hard runs and get ready for Monday,” Todd said. “It would have been nice to be able to race for that money, but at the end of the day I would rather have that trophy on Monday than the money they are paying today.”
Todd won the NHRA U.S. Nationals in back-to-back years (2017-18). So, it is odd to him, as a former winner, how he has managed to fly so far under the radar this weekend.
Todd has put together a steady campaign and has the hardware at this track to back it up. He also placed his DHL Toyota Supra in the top half of the field heading into eliminations. Todd is eighth with a 3.894 at 329.50 mph, and will face Cruz Pedregon in the opening round.
So why is he being overlooked? Perhaps it is because he doesn’t have a win this year. Perhaps it is the fact that he has been .500 in round wins this year. Perhaps it is inconsistency. No matter the reason, Todd feels his time is coming – and soon.
“I feel like that is always our mentality, we always seem to get overlooked,” Todd said. “But when you win one of these things, it is hard to overlook you. I would rather be in the position we are in, just going about our business and not having all of the hype like the other top teams do. I think we are right on the edge of breaking through and running with these guys out here.”
So who would Todd have picked if he had had the opportunity to call someone out this weekend? He wouldn’t tell.
“I don’t know, I would have to think about it. I would have to see who is doing what in qualifying and analyze it and get back to you,” Todd said. “I do like what Robert did, that is a good approach. That is what the fans want to see right there. And it worked out for him today.”
REMATCH -- They matched up in round one of the Pep Boys NHRA Funny Car Allstar Callout on Sunday. They will be opponents again during the NHRA U.S. Nationals on Monday.
Matt Hagan defeated Alexis DeJoria in round one of the Pep Boys Callout on Sunday, but DeJoria will get another shot at him Monday. Hagan qualified seventh, while DeJoria sits 10th on the ladder with a 3.907 at 329.02 mph.
A MATCHUP DECADES IN THE MAKING -- One of the most-anticipated matches during Sunday’s Pep Boys Funny Car Allstar Callout was a first-round showdown between Cruz Pedregon and John Force.
Between them, nearly 200 NHRA race wins. Between them, eight U.S. Nationals trophies. Between them, 18 world championships.
So it was only fitting that after Robert Hight challenged Bob Tasca, Matt Hagan chose Alexis DeJoria, and Ron Capps selected Tim Wilkerson, that the two drivers remaining were ones that have met more than 115 times over five decades.
“We were the last two standing back there, so it was kind of fitting,” Pedregon said. “It felt like, if there was an opponent the fans would like to see me race today, it was probably Force. We have been doing this since the early ‘90s and we have had some good races. Obviously he has
been on the winning side of that equation more than we have, but we’ve got our licks in on him. We will get up for Force, we always do. And he will do the same. We just really need to focus on our car, otherwise it will be a short day.”
And a short day it was.
Pedregon took his shot, but came up second best against Force as his Snap-On Tools machine began losing cylinders midway during the run to the tune of a 4.031-second pass at 311.49 mph. Force, meanwhile, went right down Broadway with a stout 3.931 at 327.82 mph to advance.
Later, Force reflected on racing against Pedregon through the years.
“In the early ‘90s I was on my way to winning the championship and Cruz did the impossible. With six races left, I lost every (race) and he won every (race). It wasn’t about revenge or getting even, it was just good, clean racing,” Force said. “I love Cruz because he does everything. He tunes the cars. He drives them. It sounds like I am sucking up to him, but he is a really good racer. He was going to pick me anyway. We had fun up there.”
While neither driver in this instance had an opportunity to select the other, would they change their matchup if they could have?
“I probably still would have called out John Force,” Pedregon said. “I didn’t know how this (Callout) was going to turn out. I was on the fence with it. But the fact that Robert called out the other best car out here (Bob Tasca), I think for the fans’ interest, the way it shook out was really beneficial for
the fans. I think the matchups were great.”
Force will start the U.S. Nationals from the fourth position with a weekend-best 3.881 at 333.25 mph, while Pedregon is ninth with a 3.906 at 324.83 mph.
PERFORMANCE UNDER PRESSURE -- The true mark of a great racer is performance under pressure. And no one has had more ice in their veins at this weekend’s Dodge Power Brokers NHRA U.S. Nationals than Blake Alexander.
Entering this weekend’s event 12th in points, Alexander has a chance to do something special. Sitting less than 30 points behind 10th-place Chad Green with a shot at making the Countdown to the Championship, Alexander, Green, and the third man in the trio, Jim Campbell, have been
battling it out in qualifying and will do the same Monday, with the person collecting the most points earning a spot in the postseason.
So when Alexander came out Friday night and laid down a 3.905-second pass at 323.19 mph, placing him solidly in the top five right out the gate, the team was able to breathe a sigh of relief knowing they were firmly in the show and could spend the rest of the weekend focusing on incremental improvements.
By the time the dust had settled, Alexander had climbed to fifth with a 3.881-second pass at 327.19 mph.
“We literally came out here just trying to run the numbers that we think we can run on this track and let everything else take care of itself,” Alexander said. “The goal here when you come to this big event is to not have to race one of the heavy hitters in round one on a perfect Monday morning with a really good racetrack. We put ourselves in that position on Friday. We are just going to let the car and the hard work of this crew do the talking and see what happens from here.”
While a good run on the opening night of a marathon weekend guarantees nothing come Monday, Alexander admits that a strong start does make the rest of the weekend flow a little more smoothly.
“It is always a relief,” Alexander said. “You sleep a lot better, and the food tastes a lot better once you have made that good run to kick off the weekend. It just makes the weekend more enjoyable.”
Alexander and the Pronto Auto Service Center Funny Car team began the 2022 season in Gainesville with an emotional return to the track following last year’s tragic loss of crewmember Dylan Cromwell in a traffic accident. The loss was on the minds of everyone as the team came through with incredible resolve in their season debut to reach the final round.
Outside of that final round, however, Alexander hasn’t savored much success. And four races missed this year has left Alexander clinging to hope as he tries to claim the final spot in the Countdown.
“I haven’t thought about it too much. With the accident that happened last year we missed a bunch of races at the beginning of the year,” Alexander said. “We are just kind of enjoying being out here. Whether we make the top 10 or not is not going to kill us either way, but we are going
to give it our all this weekend.”
Alexander’s strong run on Friday was backed up on Saturday and Sunday. He credits much of that success to a test session two weeks ago in Brainerd as the team took some pretty hefty swings at the tuneup.
“We made some pretty big changes to the way we run the car at the test session after Brainerd, and it is working well so far, which doesn’t always happen when you make those kinds of changes,” Alexander said. “We are happy with it and we are going to keep picking away at it. I am just really happy with all of the guys. They do a really good job working on the car and giving me a safe and well put together machine. We all have a pretty good understanding of what we need to do to be successful.”
A LITTLE TOO LATE -- Both Justin Schriefer and Terry Haddock improved on their times during the fifth and final qualifying session of the weekend, but ultimately came up just short. While both dipped into the low four-second zone in their final hits at the track, Schriefer and Haddock missed the cut and will not be racing Monday.
CAPPS GUNNING FOR ELUSIVE INDY VICTORY
SO CLOSE, YET SO FAR AWAY - Ron Capps should be a U.S. Nationals champion.
That’s his belief, anyway.
The defending world champion, who’s No. 2 on the all-time wins list in the NHRA Funny Car ranks, Capps has amassed an impressive 70 career Wally trophies. But the one that has eluded him is the most coveted trophy of them all.
It is well documented and talked about ad nauseum each time the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series visits Indianapolis. This year, the talk about the one win missing from Capps’ golden resume stings just a little bit more. That’s because Capps feels he should be entering this weekend’s Dodge Power Brokers NHRA U.S. Nationals as the defending race winner.
“When we rolled up last year, it has to be one of the few times I really thought, ‘We’ve got this.’ I was almost counting it before it happened,” Capps recalled. “We had a great racecar. We had lane choice. The right lane was OK, but it was nothing like the left lane. And then there was Tim Wilkerson. I still joke with Tim that we got ‘Wilk’ed.’ Throughout the season, every time we race him, we do not want to get ‘Wilk’ed.’
“Every team out here will tell you that they have been ‘Wilk’ed’ at some point or another. He is sly about that. He has got all of the right parts, and when he wants to, he can step it up and do stuff like that. That was as tough a pill to swallow as any.”
If we rewind to this race one year ago, Capps looked unstoppable. After qualifying sixth, Capps found himself matched up with Wilkerson in the final after posting bracket-like passes of 3.903, 3.952 and 3.909 on a tricky racetrack against Justin Schriefer, Robert Hight and Alexis DeJoria.
Wilkerson, meanwhile, had not come anywhere close to those times, and battled for wins against Bobby Bode, John Force and Cruz Pedregon.
In the final, Capps chose the much-preferred left lane and was ready to collect that first career U.S. Nationals trophy. Wilkerson surprised even himself with a weekend-best 3.912-second pass at 320.36 mph, outdueling Capps’ 3.946 at 326.63 mph.
Or, as Capps put it, he got ‘Wilk’ed.’
“I try not to be a sore loser and I try not to do it in public if I am that upset about something,” Capps said. “There are times I’ve had to get in the tow vehicle and let it out. You just feel like somebody reached in and pulled all of your organs out of your body. And that was one of those moments.”
But it didn’t take long for some of the sting to wear off. A longtime friend of Wilkerson, Capps said that once he saw his opponent on the top end, he felt a little bit better about the loss.
That is, until he woke up the next morning.
“When I got out of the car and I looked over at Tim, it didn’t take long before I was OK with it. He is one of the greatest things for this sport, and I have been a fan of his forever. So, yeah, that made it a little bit better,” Capps said. “But then I got up to go to the airport the next morning, and it hurt just as bad.”
Capps admits that wins like the one by Wilkerson last year — a win that snapped a five-year winless drought and was his first win at Indy in 18 years — are part of what makes this race so special. The history of the U.S. Nationals is dotted with just as many upsets and did-you-see-that moments as it has been megateams running away with it.
And that is also why Capps wants to put his name into the record books so badly.
“You take it up about 10 notches the fact that this is the U.S. Nationals, which has had so many strange moments throughout the years,” Capps said. “You’ve had guys win their first race ever at the U.S. Nationals, and they disappear and they are no longer in the sport. But they are U.S. Nationals champions. So many non-big-funded teams to win. Underdog stories. A lot has happened over the years and that is what has made this such a special race.”
On Friday night, Capps found himself outside the top 16 looking in after slapping the wall in his NAPA Auto Care machine, but on Saturday he quickly turned that around. Capps had a pair of top-two passes in both of the sessions, posting a 3.955 on Q2 to secure his spot in the field and then jumping all the way up to fourth thanks to a 3.881-second pass at 326.56 mph in the third of five scheduled qualifying sessions.
Little could be sweeter for Capps than to end his U.S. Nationals drought than to be victorious in his first year as a team owner/driver.
“Everything happened so fast in the last year. You couldn’t have scripted it any better than me knowing I was going to be a team owner and to finish out the year like we did. To win a world championship going into the following year was huge,” Capps said.
“It has been a dream so far. We’ve had some downtime with a few explosions and little things here and there, but I enjoy walking the pit area and working with this team. That is why the first thing I did when I knew we were going to be able to put the team together was to get ‘Guido’ (Dean Antonelli) and (John) Medlen and this whole team that we won a championship with together. I can’t even tell you how much of a dream it has been.”
Beyond all of the on-track Indy shortfalls that have haunted Capps at this race throughout the years, the veteran racer of the NAPA Auto Care Toyota Supra Funny Car said that the best thing about this race each year is the fans.
One visit to the NAPA Auto Care pit area and you will see a line of fans hoping to catch an autograph or take a selfie with the driver. One person even handed a phone to Capps and asked him to talk to his wife.
“His wife had brain surgery a few years ago and is a huge fan. She was almost crying on the phone,” Capps explained. “Moments like that are what it is all about. It is emotional sometimes.”
So in all of his visits to Indy, and at racetracks spread coast-to-coast, what is the oddest thing Capps has ever signed?
“You would think it would be a body part of some type, but believe it or not the oddest thing I have signed was a dog. A beagle, actually,” Capps said. “I did an arm-drop event for NAPA Auto Parts at a racetrack in northern California, and they brought their little beagle up and asked me to sign its back. They then sent me a framed picture of me signing that dog about two months afterwards. I still have that picture at home.”
A STUNNING CALLOUT - Shootouts have been a part of life in the National Hot Rod Association for many years.
The most recent version of shootout drag racing — the Traxxas Nitro Shootout — was a popular side event for the sport for a few years that matched up some of the top teams in the sport racing for big money. But in that race the fields were set ahead of time.
In the new iteration of shootout racing, the Pep Boys NHRA Funny Car Allstar Callout, a new format set up some unique matchups and interesting possibilities. In this race, the drivers choose their opponents, beginning with the top qualifier on down.
While many expected top seed Robert Hight to call on someone much farther down the pecking order — someone like Tim Wilkerson who has just one round win in the last four races, or Matt Hagan who hasn’t been lighting the world up recently — Hight stunned the crowd with his decision. He chose the hottest driver in the sport as his first-round matchup on Sunday, calling out Bob Tasca III, who has won three of the past four races on the NHRA tour.
While the crowd may have been stunned by that decision, one person who wasn’t surprised was Tasca.
“That’s the way it should be,” Tasca said. “The two cars running as good as anyone out here the first round, get it over with and see what we can do. We’ll see you soon.”
The Pep Boys NHRA Funny Car All-Star Call-Out will take place Sunday, with the first and final rounds taking place in conjunction with the regular qualifying sessions, sandwiched between a special semifinal round during the afternoon.
So how does Tasca approach going against the points leader and winningest driver in the field in round one of the specialty race?
“One round at a time,” Tasca said. “It is a big deal for the fans. It is a lot of fun to have a format like that, but the bottom line is any one of those eight cars can win it and we just have to go and run our race and see how we do.”
Calling out the hottest driver in the field was certainly a bold and calculated decision. What was Hight thinking in choosing a duel with Tasca?
“If anyone thinks that one of these other seven drivers is easier than another or one is a gimme, you have another thing coming,” said Hight during his callout selection.
“Funny Car has never been more competitive. We thought about it. The whole Auto Club team got together trying to figure out what was the best strategy and coming in number one you have an advantage. You get to pick first and you are going to have lane choice in that first round. So I am going to pick a guy that has been doing some winning lately, Bob Tasca.
“I get up to race that team, and they get up to race me. If you want to win this thing and take home the cash at the end of the day you are going to have to beat a guy or gal like that. We are going to get it out of the way in the first round.”
After opening the year with mediocre results across the sports first nine races, and sitting eighth in the standings at the halfway point of the regular season, Tasca began to turn the corner at Norwalk with a semifinal finish. Since then, Tasca has been to five final rounds in the last six races with three wins.
While you would think that such a turnaround would accompany some magic found in the car, you would be wrong. In this instance, the turnaround was simply incremental gains finally clicking, and that is certainly a scary thing for the rest of the field.
“The real success of this team has been over the last couple of years, not just the last couple of weeks. We have just been working on the setup, knowing where we were deficient and working towards improving in those areas,” Tasca said. “There hasn’t been anything specific, just a lot of hard work and a lot of great execution by the team. The guys have a good handle on it right now and we are going to try and keep it up.”
As if pairing the winningest and the hottest drivers on the tour weren’t enough, Hight and Tasca found themselves separated by just eight thousandths of a second on the qualifying ladder after posting the first- and second-best times Friday night. Tasca had the early advantage with a 3.878-second pass at 331.53 mph, but Hight battled back one pair later with a 3.870 at 331.94 mph to take the provisional pole.
SETTING HIMSELF APART – There is not much left to be said about Robert Hight.
He is a three-time champion. He has 59 wins. He is a three-time winner of the ‘Big Go.’ He is the quickest and fastest man in the Funny Car category. He is a pro in every sense of the word.
But for a man who has seen the highest of highs in this sport, this season stands out.
Hight comes into the weekend having already secured the regular-season championship. He has six wins on his ledger, and if things keep going according to plan, this season will mark his most successful in a hall-of-fame career.
Oh, and on Friday night Hight placed his Auto Club Chevrolet first on the ladder for what could be the 75th time in his career if it holds. And on Saturday, he backed that up with two solid runs in both of those sessions — 3.924 and 3.896 — to easily prove his dominance once more.
“That is exactly what we needed. We stayed and tested Monday in Brainerd and made some really good runs. So we have made a lot of consecutive really good runs going down the racetrack,” Hight said. “And we had one today when things were a little trickier where we were low elapsed time. That is the kind of stuff that you need on Sunday and Monday if you want to win these races.”
Will that time hold on Sunday? Only time will tell.
“All you can really look at is that run (Friday night),” Hight explained. “Those were the conditions that we all faced, and they are going to be a little bit different each day. The crew chiefs really race the conditions. What you do one night, if it is hot the next day, it is not going to have much of an effect. But if it is cloudy and the conditions are right, we could run similar to that. Look at Brainerd. I was No. 1 on the first night, and (Matt) Hagan got us on the second day. It could move around and change before the end of qualifying, that is what makes it exciting for the fans and a challenge for us.”
Hight’s run Friday night had the added nerves of the team putting a new Camaro body on their nitro-burning machine — just another variable to throw in the mix when trying to put together a perfect pass.
“The other (body) had 120 runs on it, and it was time to retire,” Hight said. “Usually when you have a new body things can go wrong and it takes a while. It takes a few runs for them to settle in and (Friday) we went almost 332 miles per hour. Hats off to the team, they did an amazing job.”
Third on the Funny Car all-time win list behind only John Force (155) and Ron Capps (70), Hight is chasing career win number 60 this weekend as well as a career-best season. If he can collect that 60th victory before the campaign ends, Hight is poised to become just the sixth Funny Car driver to win at least seven races in a season.
Included in his nearly 60 career wins are three U.S. National victories (2006, 2008 and 2013). Hight’s only No. 1 start was in 2009, when he lost in the final round to teammate Ashley Force Hood but, in so doing, he qualified for the Countdown in the 10th and final position. He would go on to win the first of his three championships, becoming the only driver in any category to win from a last-place start.
“The U.S. Nationals are a big deal, there’s a lot going on this weekend with the five qualifying runs and the Callout,” Hight said. “Most importantly, it’s the final race before the Countdown begins. This Auto Club Chevy team has worked hard all season, that’s what’s gotten us to the points lead. Doing well at the ‘Big Go’ will carry over to the Countdown, where the points reset and we really have to be on it. It’s going to be a long weekend, hopefully we can make it worth it and come out with a win or even two.”
In addition to regularly scheduled competition, this weekend’s U.S. Nationals will also play host to the Pep Boys NHRA Funny Car All-Star Callout. Based on qualifying efforts throughout the season, Hight and the Auto Club team have earned the No. 1 seed. Hight has never won a specialty event however, he reached the final round the last four times the Traxxas Nitro Shootout was contested (2014-17).
“I’ve been in the last four of these things and never won one. I had the best car. I left first. And something always happened,” Hight said. “Anything can happen in drag racing, and all we can do is focus on what we do. Hopefully, I finally get one.”
And this year, the competition is as tough as ever with Hagan, Ron Capps, Bob Tasca and team boss John Force trading wins throughout the season, in addition to Cruz Pedregon, Alexis DeJoria and Tim Wilkerson. On Saturday, Hight called out Tasca as his first-round opponent.
“It is cool (racing these drivers). We have been battling all year. It started with Capps at the Winternationals where he and I battled it out. Then from then on it was Hagan and it was back and forth. Here recently, Tasca has come to life and he is in the mix,” Hight said. “That is what makes it fun. It is a challenge and you want good competition. I look forward to it.”
But this race isn’t just about winning the biggest race in the land. This weekend the teams will be setting the stage for a six-race showdown in the Countdown to the Championship. The points will reset and anything goes among a stout 10-car field for the 2022 NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series championship.
“When you win one of these races, you have earned it. They are not easy to get,” Hight said. “We learned that last year. We struggled and we weren’t where we needed to be. We’ve worked on it, got it where we need to be, but after this race we have six races to go. When we look back on our season we can say it was a bust if we don’t win the championship, but we are going to have to win some races in the Countdown if we want to be the champ and we are certainly capable of that.”
FLYING UNDER THE RADAR - This weekend, the bulk of the focus has been on the eight drivers in the Pep Boys NHRA Funny Car Allstars Callout. They have received most of the airtime. They have been the ones paraded on the big stage.
But there is one driver that is not a part of that field who wants to join the party.
J.R. Todd is not competing for the big money shootout Sunday, but the two-time U.S. Nationals winner is putting down solid, consistent laps, and he knows how to win at Indy. Safely locked into the Countdown to the Championship in sixth, Todd is perhaps one of the biggest threats Monday despite not getting his time in the spotlight during the first two days of racing.
Todd is currently sixth on the Funny Car ladder in his DHL Toyota Supra Funny Car with a weekend-best 3.894-second pass at 329.50 mph. He will have two more opportunities to improve on that time Sunday. And while he won’t be competing in the shootout on Sunday, he will have as good a chance as any for the sport's biggest prize one day later.
A LOT OF WINS - One of the most interesting matchups set during Saturday’s selections for the Pep Boys NHRA Funny Car Allstar Callout is the pairing of two of the class’ oldest rivals.
Between these two drivers are 193 NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series victories and a combined eight wins at the U.S. Nationals. And on Sunday, the pair will meet in round one of the special shootout race for a chance to win some big money.
John Force, a 16-time world champion, was paired with Cruz Pedregon in round one, and quickly acknowledged the deep-staging battles that he and Pedregon have had this season, adding a little fuel to the fire.
“I really thought Hagan was gonna take me and make it Beauty and the Beast, but I got my buddy Cruzer. It’s going to be fun,” Force said. “They talked about that roll out seven inches. Cruz, you’ve done it to me, I’ve done it to you. When I go in this time, I ain’t stopping.”
While neither driver got a chance to call out another thanks to being the final pair remaining, Pedregon said he was ready.
“I was sitting there looking at all the opponents and for some reason, I did not feel like getting called out because that’s going to bring out the devil in me,” Pedregon said. “But I think the fans are going to get a treat. John’s car is running really good. I tell people all the time, ‘John’s age really doesn’t mean anything.’ I feared him as much as I did when I raced him when he was in his 40s, and he was really good then, so I think it’s going to be a hell of a race.”
The two drivers are also qualified in the top half of the field after three of five scheduled sessions, with Force currently sitting third with a 3.881 at 333.25 mph, and Pedregon eighth with a 3.906 at 324.83 mph.
THE EASY WAY OR THE HARD WAY - Before turning a single lap this weekend, Justin Schriefer already knew his back was against the wall.
A journeyman racer from Illinois, Schriefer only makes a few races per year, but one of those races — and sometimes the only NHRA race he runs each year — is the U.S. Nationals. Schriefer has been a regular competitor at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park since 2015 and, though he has never won a round of competition at the race, it doesn’t stop him from coming to Indy each year with the same goal in mind.
“My goal is to bring a Wally home every time I come to Indy,” a confident Schriefer said. “My intention at any race is to come home with a Wally no matter what. We try hard. We try to make all of the runs even when we can’t really afford to. I don’t get that much time out here, so I want to be able to show people that I am really trying hard — and we do try hard. When we make runs like we did last year, it makes it worth the time.”
One year ago, Schriefer fired off a 4.097-second pass at 302.55 mph during his first hit at the track, good enough to qualify him 11th on the ladder. While he suffered a round-one defeat to eventual event runner-up Ron Capps, it was another incremental success for the team at the biggest race of them all.
“Sometimes you take it for granted while you are focusing on driving that I am a part of all of this. I get to drive a nitro Funny Car and have my own operation at the biggest drag race in the world,” Schriefer said. “That passion keeps me going. Indy is my favorite race. Everybody asks me why I go to Indy because there are always so many cars there. Well, I am here to compete. I don’t want to just show up with 14 cars and make the field. I want to qualify because I had to push two cars out. I want to come out here and show that we mean business.”
Schriefer’s motivation is also buoyed by the support of the NHRA fans, as well as his sponsor, who has a special cheering section for the team each year in the stands.
“I’ve got the best team to hang out with and I love the fans, they are great,” Schriefer said. “I’ve got my sponsor West Side, and they are all down there cheering. They buy 200 tickets every year and they come out with all of these people. (Friday night) they were all out cheering me on which means so much.”
Heading into the final day of qualifying, Schriefer sits on the bump spot in 16th with a weekend-best 4.132-second pass at 283.19 mph.
ALL EYES ON THE 10 SPOT - Three drivers remain in contention for the 10th and final spot in the Countdown to the Championship points: Blake Alexander, Chad Green and Jim Campbell.
While all three drivers have had their ups and downs, Alexander has been the most consistent of the trio so far at the Dodge Power Brokers NHRA U.S. Nationals, sitting seventh on the 16-car Funny Car ladder with a 3.899-second pass at 326.16 mph.
KICKING SOME A$$ - Last year, Tim Wilkerson ruined Ron Capps’ opportunity to win his very first U.S. Nationals.
On Sunday, Wilkerson hopes to ruin Capps’ opportunity to win some big money.
Looking for a little revenge, Capps chose Wilkerson during selections for the Pep Boys NHRA Funny Car Allstars Callout, hoping to defeat the man who beat him at this track one year ago in the final round of the 2021 U.S. Nationals.
But Wilkerson, who counts Capps among his closest friends, isn’t afraid to send the driver of the NAPA Auto Care Toyota packing for a second year in a row.
“Hopefully I can get old Ron again and we can do the best we can,” Wilkerson said. “Thanks to Pep Boys, this is a very special thing to be involved in. Everybody knows I’m a NAPA guy through and through. I have a NAPA Auto Center, so NAPA and I are close. And Ron, I know we are close, but when we put our helmets on, I’m kicking his ass.”
In qualifying, Wilkerson sits 10th after three of five sessions with a 3.924 at 304.39 mph.
NOT AN IDEAL START - There has been nothing easy about Jim Campbell’s start to the weekend at the NHRA U.S. Nationals.
On Friday night, Campbell slipped toward the centerline and mowed over a number of timing blocks on the track, wiping out his run and leaving him as one of two cars outside the field. On Saturday afternoon, Campbell kept his Dodge Charger straight, but was off the throttle early and had to coast down the track.
“It was not a fun ride (Friday) night,” Campbell said. “There is nothing worse than your first round at Indy, and you start drifting over toward the centerline and take out the 1,000-foot cone. But today is a new day. We will put Friday behind us and go for it.”
And that he did. Sitting on the outside looking in, Campbell finally got the machine from A to B with a 3.980-second pass at 316.45 mph in Q3 to shoot up to 14th on the chart.
Of course Campbell wasn’t the only one to suffer a brush with the center of the track Friday night. A small contingent of nitro drivers in that very same lane found themselves drifting toward the centerline during Friday’s lone qualifying session. While he is safely in the field now, Campbell knows that the money session was Friday night to place his machine into its best position to be successful Monday.
Still, while there are any number of factors that could have led to the end result, Campbell said that at the end of the day it almost always comes down to driver error.
“It could have been the way it was prepped, but it is all driver,” Campbell said. “Any time you hit a cone or something it comes back to driver error. I should have lifted earlier. Maybe the car was pointing that way. It is also hard to see at night sometimes. You see the car drifting a little bit and you think you are farther along and you want to stay in it. You want to get that good run on Friday night. At the end of the day, you need to be a little bit smarter.”
Adding to the drama, Campbell is a part of a vicious battle for the 10th and final spot in the Countdown to the Championship with Chad Green and Blake Alexander. The three drivers came into the race weekend separated by less than 30 points.
And every mistake — from oildowns to timing blocks smashed — comes with a deduction in points, and that’s a fact of which Campbell is keenly aware.
“It is tight between me, Chad and Blake Alexander. I am not sure if the Terry McMillen rule is in effect. I think we can make the Countdown if we make the correct number of runs, but we wanted to do it by points. Brainerd switched the points around and (Friday) night didn’t help my cause, losing a few points crossing the centerline. We will just try to improve the rest of the weekend.”
So is it hard putting an early mistake behind you during such a long weekend?
“I beat myself up (Friday). I beat myself up all night,” Campbell said. “But there are more sessions to go and I need to go out there and do my job and keep it in the middle.”
REVENGE ON HIS MIND - Matt Hagan was looking for a little payback when he called out Alexis DeJoria, who defeated him in the semifinals of last year’s Auto Club NHRA Finals to end his championship bid, and also beat him two weeks ago in Brainerd.
“I think about last year and when I’m trying to win my fourth championship and we got loaded up in the semis and it cost me a fourth championship. We had put Capps on the trailer and did what we needed to do, and she went up there and loaded me up,” Hagan said. “So I want a little revenge from that and she outpedaled me last weekend, so we are looking for a little payback with Alexis.”
DeJoria, however, is ready.
“After last week, when we did a pretty good job, I felt like if anyone had a target on our back with Matt Hagan it was me,” said DeJoria. “We’ve got a good car, the team’s awesome. I mean, these guys are killing it, but we have yet to win a race. Hell, we’d love to win this one. I’m really excited that Pep Boys is back out here doing their thing with a race within a race.”
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK - HIGHT BLASTS TO THE TOP OF THE FIELD
NEW HIGHTS - Robert Hight does it again.
In a season that has seen its fair share of great runs and incredible battles, Hight has been just a touch ahead of the rest of the field. He showed that again Friday night at the Dodge Power Brokers NHRA U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park.
After watching some stout runs in the two pairs prior, Hight unleashed a 3.870-second pass at 331.94 mph to earn the provisional pole for the biggest drag race in the land behind the wheel of his Auto Club Chevy. If it holds, it will be his fourth top qualifier award of the season and the 75th of his career.
“This race is like a marathon. You have to take it in strides, and you have to take it one day at a time, one run at a time,” Hight said. “I give an A-plus to the Auto Club team tonight, they did an amazing job.”
The question that remains is whether that time will hold.
While the Friday night qualifying session at Indy has traditionally set the field, with an ever-changing forecast ahead, Hight admits that anything can happen if the weather suddenly shifts conditions closer to what they were Friday night.
“The forecast keeps changing. All weekend long we are thinking we are going to get one shot for No. 1. When you look at the conditions and the forecast now, we could see runs like this all weekend long,” Hight said. “That is going to make it exciting for the fans. Normally we have a lot of heat and tricky runs here at Indy, but when I see that forecast I don’t think we are going to have that. One down, four to go.”
A FUNNY (CAR) TALE – So far in 2022, the novel about the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series Funny Car season can be summed in three easy-to-read chapters – the ballad of John Force Racing, a battle of Capps and Hagan, and the rocket man Bob Tasca.
In Chapter One, and sprinkled throughout the rest of our story, we see three-time world champion Hight take an early and commanding lead in the Funny Car championship behind the wheel of his Automobile Club of Southern California Chevrolet Camaro SS. In fact, with only five drivers all season visiting victory lane this year – the fewest of any professional category – Hight has six of those wins, and he comes into the U.S. Nationals with a commanding lead over the field. Sprinkle in a single early-May victory by team boss John Force at the Four-Wide Nationals, and JFR has claimed nearly half of the wins this season.
Chapter Two tells a different tale. In this chapter, two drivers with brand new teams in 2022 – Matt Hagan with Tony Stewart Racing and Ron Capps with his own team – began trading victories during a four-month stretch that saw the veterans climb to second and third in the championship standings, respectively.
Hagan has amassed three wins this season, taking victories in Gainesville, Houston and New England, while Capps has taken home Wallys from Las Vegas and Norwalk.
The third and final act of the regular season comes a bit of a twist.
Sitting eighth in the championship standings at the halfway point of the regular season and failing to advance past the second round in any of those competitions, Bob Tasca has since notched three wins in the last four races and visited five final rounds in the last six outings. That sudden burst of success was so unexpected that it has left much of the field scratching its head.
Outside of the five race winners, who have separated themselves from the rest of the field by a sizable margin, the rest of the top 10 in Funny Car coming into the race at Lucas Oil Raceway are J.R. Todd, Alexis DeJoria, Cruz Pedregon, Tim Wilkerson and Chad Green. Of that group, only Todd and Wilkerson have earned a final round in 2022, and they took home runner-up finishes at Bristol and Seattle, respectively.
With 187 points available this weekend thanks to the unique scoring system, Hight has secured the regular-season championship, but the final spot in the Countdown to the Championship is far from clinched.
Green comes into the weekend in the cutoff spot, holding a single-digit lead over Jim Campbell and a lead of less than 30 points over Blake Alexander. All three drivers have a shot to make the playoffs this weekend.
‘DUMB MOVE’ - Everyone wants to win at Indy.
Sometimes, that leads to drivers pushing their machines a little too hard.
Ron Capps fell victim to just that Friday night, keeping in the throttle just a touch too long and slapping the wall significantly in his NAPA Auto Care Toyota Supra GR Funny Car. That contact disqualified his first run of the weekend at Indy.
“This is the shot you need. With the weather and the conditions, (Friday) is where you end up qualifying normally,” Capps said. “I just stayed in it too long. You need to squeeze as much as you can, and it was going to the right. I wasn’t sure if there was a cylinder going out. It was just a dumb move.”
Capps was visibly frustrated after climbing from his machine, but was quick to point out that the team has plenty of parts and pieces and a fantastic crew backing him, helping him forget and press ahead.
“I am the hardest on myself. I’ve got great guys. They are going to pat me on the back and they are going to work their tails off, which they always do because I know I am better than that,” Capps said. “It is Indy. It is the 'Big Go.' And you try to squeeze everything you can out of it.
“I don’t normally do stuff like that. You see the finish line and you are trying to get there, and things happen so fast you can’t say, 'Should I do this or should I do that?’ You don’t have the time. It is unfortunate, and I damaged the Toyota body a little bit. We have another Supra up in the trailer, and we will just come out tomorrow and get back after it.”
BACK HOME AGAIN IN INDIANA - The last time we saw Tim Wilkerson at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park, he was hoisting his second trophy at the famed U.S. Nationals - an amazing 18 years after his first victory in 2003.
In that race one year ago, Wilkerson went four memorable rounds, knocking off Bobby Bode, Force, Pedregon, and Capps on a hot, challenging racing surface. He saved his best for last with a race-day shot of 3.912 seconds at 320.36 to earn his second win at the 'Big Go.'
“Last year was a perfect storm, really,” Wilkerson said. “We ended up racing the right people all day, and when we had to run low E.T. of the race, we actually figured out how to do it.”
Last year’s Indy win put Wilkerson into elite company as a multi-time Indy winner, but more importantly for him personally, the win snapped a considerable drought for the independent racer. Wilkerson suffered five years between race wins until last year, going on to win two races in three events, backing the Indy victory up at Charlotte.
“More than anything, last year was big for us just getting our car back in the winner’s circle,” Wilkerson said. “And to do it at Indy, it is a financially great place to win.”
Of course, the win was not just a banner moment for Wilkerson, but for his team, many of whom had never tasted victory at the sport’s biggest race, including crew chief Richard Hartman. “It was special for Richard, which made me very, very happy,” Wilkerson said.
Coming into this year’s U.S. Nationals, Wilkerson is ninth in the Countdown to the Championship standings, but safely locked into the field - a new position for Wilkerson. The past few trips to Indy, Wilkerson battled the cloud of having to maintain a spot in the top 10 in points to advance to the playoffs.
Still, despite being locked into the postseason, Wilkerson is facing another drought of wins on Sundays. After visiting the final round at Bristol in a runner-up to Ron Capps back in June, Wilkerson has just two round wins since.
“We are going to have to see what we can figure out and see if the thing runs properly,” Wilkerson said. “We have been stepping on our butts a little bit lately, and we have to stop doing that.”
And there is no better place to turn the corner than at Indy where Wilkerson hopes to repeat the magic of last season -- though for a man who has turned hundreds of laps at the track, that magic has become a bit more commonplace.
“I’m not that nostalgic about Indy like everybody else because I’ve raced here since 1978. To me, it is just another damn racetrack,” Wilkerson said. “Still, it is the biggest one we have and the coolest one we have, so of course it is important.”
GETTING THE HANG OF THIS FUNNY CAR THING - There is nothing easy about driving a Funny Car. There is nothing easy about driving a Pro Mod. So why would anyone want to tackle both?
You will have to ask Chad Green.
After making a name for himself in the door-car ranks in Pro Modified -- and, before that, Top Sportsman -- Green has gone all-in in the nitro ranks, hiring a full-time crew led by second-generation racer/tuner Daniel Wilkerson and tackling nearly the entire NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series tour in 2022.
After 10 appearances in the class over the previous two seasons, Green has found himself as comfortable as ever behind the wheel of the nitro-burning machine. He finds himself right in the thick of the Countdown to the Championship points battle in the class in his first full-time season.
In fact, Green is currently 10th in the standings entering the final race of the regular season ahead of Campbell and Alexander. If he can outscore those two challengers, Green will make the Countdown in his first season in the class.
“We definitely have our backs against the wall, we know that,” Green said. “We were fortunate enough to get back in the top 10 that last race, but it is not safe and we know that.”
One positive for Green is that he is rather comfortable driving at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park. Green made his Funny Car debut at the Lucas Oil Summernationals at the track in July 2020, when NHRA returned from the COVID-19 pause. He not only qualified in his Funny Car debut, but also scored his first career event win in his Pro Mod entry at the same race.
Green will also be back behind the wheel of a familiar car this weekend, switching machines to an older car he raced at the first few races of the season -- races where he went multiple rounds.
“We actually brought our old car back out,” Green siad. “We ran our old car for the first five races of the year, and we went to the semis two times in those five races. Then, my new car was ready, and we put this car up and since then we have been struggling with this new car. We’ve got some gremlins going on.
“So, with the position we are in, we decided to bring the old car back out. This will be the first time we have run it since Houston, and we are hoping it is going to make a difference.”
After all, this weekend, it is all about making the Countdown in Funny Car. And with additional points on the line thanks to a unique points-and-a-half format for the sport’s biggest race, every single pass can result in drivers bumping in and out of the field.
“At this point and the position I am at, I wish it wasn’t points-and-a-half, but it is what it is,” Green said. “When we go up there, it is just like making another run anywhere. Once I get in that car, your focus is on what you are doing there. I don’t think about the crowd. I don’t think about points. I don’t think about any of that, I just do my thing.”
Of course, putting everything out of your mind and just focusing on the task at hand is much easier said than done. In fact, when Green had an opportunity to bump into the top 10 one week ago at Brainerd in round one against Wilkerson, he admitted that the end result may have entered his mind.
“Yeah, I can’t say I don’t ever think about points,” Green said with a laugh. “At the last race in round one I knew it was critical. I definitely was thinking about it. When I got the win against Tim, I was definitely very amped up. I am sure it will be more of the same this weekend.”
SPOILER ALERT - Some teams just wake up on race day knowing they are going to go rounds and have an opportunity to win. Others hope they can win a round or two if things go perfectly.
Dale Creasy Jr. is a driver in the latter category. He is hoping to one day join the former.
A journeyman racer with success in the ranks of the International Hot Rod Association before setting his sights on a part-time NHRA career, Creasy has been a consistent qualifier and a thorn in the side of many a racer through the years. And even at his age, Creasy is still learning and improving, proving that fact just two weeks ago in Brainerd when he drove his Tek Pak Chevrolet Camaro to a career-best 3.967 in a first-round loss to Tasca. Creasy would have won at least half of the round-one duels with his performance, but came out on the short end against Tasca’s dominant 3.891.
Now he will look to continue that momentum this weekend at the biggest drag race in the land.
“When we left Brainerd, this car was running pretty good. I had a career best up there. Now we are just going to try and maintain that and see if we can do it again,” Creasy said. “Once it starts doing it again, maybe we can get after it a little bit.”
In his NHRA career, Creasy has had just 16 round wins in 139 matchups, but each one of those was significant. In each, it was an opportunity for a small, independent team to place a mega team on the hauler and send them home early. And in a race like the U.S. Nationals, that upset-minded attitude can be the difference between other teams making the postseason or going home early.
“I don’t like to brag about it, but any chance that we have to beat one of the bigger teams is a great opportunity for us and I’m going to do my best to make it happen,” Creasy said.
While round wins are few and far between, and a visit to a final round still eludes Creasy, there is always next time. This weekend is as good as any.
“I try not to look ahead. A lot of times, if you look ahead it bites you because you forget what you are supposed to be doing,” Creasy said. “On race day we live with what we have and make the best of it. If we do what we are supposed to do and they do what they are supposed to do, they are going to outrun us.
“But, we are getting close enough now that if there is any kind of glitch, we’ve got a chance.”
BIG GO IS BACK - The Dodge Power Brokers NHRA U.S. Nationals is known as the 'Big Go' for a number of reasons.
It is the biggest race of the year. It is the richest race of the year. Oh, and it is the longest race of the year, too.
Traditionally a grind of a weekend, with more qualifying sessions than any other race and an extended stay that stretches into an extra day of eliminations, the 'Big Go' has earned that moniker thanks to it being the biggest at just about everything.
And then the pandemic happened. Thanks to a COVID-altered schedule in 2020-21, the traditional four-day weekend for the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series was shortened to three days.
But in 2022, the 'Big Go' is back at full throttle. Five qualifying sessions. An extra day for eliminations. Oh, and the return of nitro shootouts, adding an extra layer of drama to an already exhausting weekend.
So just how tiring is this weekend?
“It is a lot and you really have to pace yourself,” said Funny Car driver Alexis DeJoria. “You have family, friends and fans that come out. It is nonstop. I’ve been around here for a long time, and I think in the beginning it is overwhelming, but after a while it is home.”
DeJoria is one of the pro drivers with that extra dose of drama this weekend, having qualified for the Pep Boys Funny Car Callout Race this weekend, giving her a race within a race. DeJoria will wheel her Bandero Tequila/ROKIT Toyota GR Supra in five qualifying sessions, the Callout race -- which will house its rounds within qualifying -- and, if all goes according to plans, race for a U.S. Nationals trophy Monday.
“I think it is all really good practice,” DeJoria explained. “Every time you go out there, it could be a round win. All in all, it is a big weekend with so much going on. You just have to take it one day at a time, one run at a time.”
A six-time NHRA race winner, DeJoria counts among her wins a victory at the U.S. Nationals back in 2014. She's excited to have a chance to win multiple races this weekend thanks to the added shootout.
“We qualified for the shootout and it is just good to be a part of it. There are only eight cars that were allowed in, and there are so many really good teams right now, us being one of them,” DeJoria said. “The competition is really tight, and it is just exciting. I’ve missed it ever since we used to race the Traxxis shootout at Indy. It is a nice thing for the fans and the racers as well.”
So where does that leave DeJoria as far as confidence heading into a full weekend?
“We have a good car, and I have a lot of confidence in our team right now,” DeJoria said. “We have done well in the past here, now we just have to see what happens.”
LUCKY SEVEN – Of the current batch of NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series Funny Car stars, only seven have been lucky enough to hoist a trophy as winner of prestigious NHRA U.S. Nationals.
Sixteen-time Funny Car champion John Force is tied with Ed “The Ace” Mulloch for the most Funny Car wins at the U.S. Nationals with five, having won the race in 1993, 1996, 1998, 2002 and 2019. Force’s teammate Hight is also a multi-time winner of the biggest drag race in the world, having won the Big Go in 2006, 2008 and 2013.
“I’m excited to be in Indy, to be racing at the U.S. Nationals. Having a race within a race, three days of qualifying, race day on Monday, it’s a big deal. The fans will be packed in for a great show,” Force said. “Final race before we get into the Countdown and this PEAK Chevy team has got a chance to make a move in the points. We’ve struggled a bit but Danny Hood, Tim Fabrisi, all these young guys, they’ve been working hard. We’ll be out there making every run count, hoping to win the Pep Boys callout and end up in the winners circle on Monday.”
On Friday, Force drove his Peak Auto Chevy to the third spot on the Funny Car ladder with a stout 3.881-second pass at 333.25 mph.
Cruz Pedregon, is also a three-time winner of this race, with wins coming in 1992, 1994 and 1995, while J.R. Todd and Tim Wilkerson rounds out the current multi-time winners with two each.
The remaining Funny Car competitors to taste victory in Indianapolis are Matt Hagan (2016) and Alexis DeJoria (2014).
STEADY GOES IT - The best way to describe the season for Cruz Pedregon thus far would be steady.
He has consistently qualified well, with only a 12th place start at Topeka keeping Pedregon and crew chief J.C. Collins from a clean sweep of top half starts. He has won a round at nearly every race this year. And he continued that strong qualifying run Friday at the U.S. Nationals, placing his Snap-on Dodge fifth on the ladder at one of five scheduled sessions with a 3.906 at 324.83 mph.
So what's the problem? Of those round wins, only one has been parlayed into a second-round win. Oh, and of those rare round-one losses, four of them have occurred in the past five races.
While Pedregon is safely locked into the Countdown to the Championship and has managed to make some noise during qualifying and on race day, outside of a semifinal finish at the season opener, there hasn’t been much else to be excited about.
But with each new race is a new opportunity to have success and for a three-time U.S. Nationals winner like Pedregon, that means this weekend is the perfect opportunity to turn the corner and take his Snap-on Dodge SRT Hellcat Funny Car to new heights.
“I’ve been privileged to win the U.S. Nationals three times, and I’d love to finish the regular season strong with a fourth Indy win,” Pedregon said. “The guys are giving me a really good car, and it's making 3.93, 3.88, 3.94 runs. Those are really good, solid, winning runs. So we’ve done some fine-tuning between races and are really looking forward to the biggest race of the NHRA season here in Indy.”
SHOOTOUTS RETURN - The field of eight star Funny Car drivers is now set for the upcoming Pep Boys NHRA Funny Car All-Star Callout specialty race, which will take place on Sunday.
Funny Car points leader Robert Hight clinched his spot as the No. 1 seed, and he will get the chance to call out his first-round opponent from the other seven drivers, who are all competing for big money and a memorable win in the unique specialty race at the Big Go. In order, that includes defending world champ Ron Capps, three-time world champ Matt Hagan, two-time world champ Cruz Pedregon, 16-time world champ John Force, Brainerd winner Bob Tasca III, Alexis DeJoria, and defending U.S. Nationals winner Tim Wilkerson, who clinched the final spot in the callout last weekend in Brainerd.
After Hight’s initial pick for his matchup, Capps would get the next selection if he is not called out by Hight, followed by Hagan, until all the first-round matchups are set for the thrilling specialty race that includes an overall purse of $130,000, with $80,000 going to the winner.
The exciting callout aspect doesn’t stop after the first round, either. After what’s set to be a memorable first round of action, the driver who makes the quickest winning run in the opening round will get the chance to select their semifinal opponent, automatically locking in the other semifinal matchup.
The official first-round callouts will take place at 2 p.m. ET on Saturday, Sept. 3, with the competition taking place Sunday. The Pep Boys NHRA All-Star Funny Car Callout will begin with the opening round at 1:20 p.m. ET on Sunday, the semifinals at 2:45 p.m., and the final round at 4:55 p.m.