2022 NHRA U.S. NATIONALS - PRO MODIFIED NOTEBOOK
FINAL NOTEBOOK: BEATING THE ODDS; JUST ANOTHER DAY IN THE OFFICE FOR LYLE BARNETT
When you enter final eliminations as the No. 15 qualifier, your chances of ending up in the winner's circle are slim at best. Those who know Lyle Barnett understand he's always been a master of winning against slim chances.
It was seven years ago, that the popular Pro Modified racer was severely burned during a qualifying run behind the wheel of a Radial vs. The World car at the Duck X Productions No Mercy event in Valdosta, Ga. The odds were against him, and he persevered in a painful show of determination.
Monday, with many predicting a runner-up, the positive-minded Barnett scored the improbable victory over point-leader Kris Thorne, who red-lighted.
"This is a dream," Barnett said. "I've watched the U.S. Nationals on tv since I was a little boy. I've seen all the greats win here and always dreamed that my name would go down as a winner of the U.S. Nationals."
In drag racing, it's not always how you start but how you finish that counts the most. And Barnett didn't have the smoothest of starts on Friday, lagging behind the front-running cars which set up camp in the 5.70s.
Once qualifying concluded, it wouldn't take long for Barnett to visit the elusive 5.70s. And it couldn't have come at a better time.
Even though he ran in the 5.70s, he needed some help from his button finger to get the jump on Mike Castella, a man with a reputation for nailing the tree. Barnett used a 5.785 and the top speed of the meet at 253.71 miles per hour to defeat #2 qualifier Mike Castellana, on a holeshot, who ran a quicker 5.76.
Barnett had been in tune with the tree for two rounds to reach the semis. He needed the relationship for his semi-final match against Eric Dillard. Dilliard was solidly in the 5.70s but, in the semi-finals, ended up on the wrong side of the tree, leaving -.002 too soon and vaulting Barnett into the final round.
Fortunately for Barnett, who got out of shape and nearly crossed the centerline, the race was already determined.
The odds were clearly against Barnett, as Thorne had run through his side of the ladder, making his wins look effortless. He opened with a win over Brainerd runner-up Doug Winters before dipping into the 5.70s to eliminate Adriano Kayayan before taking the measure of Stevie "Fast" Jackson, who had done him a solid by taking out points nemesis Rickie Smith.
Thorne was clearly the driver to beat, but not in the eyes of fate.
Thorne left -.007 too early handing the win to Barnett, who almost gave it back by getting close to the centerline.
Barnett was overjoyed with the victory, but as he points out, it's his family who has been his driving force.
"To do it with my dad, it's because of him that I'm here. He is the sole reason why I'm able to do what I'm able to do," Barnett said. "I got a new baby boy at home, Nash Douglas. I get to bring him home a wally, and my wife has been holding the fort down, and I love them both. I can't wait to get home to them, but we're going to take this one in, and we're going to celebrate tonight. This is a big one."
SUNDAY MORNING - MOTHER NATURE PUSHES FIRST ROUND INTO MONDAY; THORNE LEADS THE SHOW
MR. SATURDAY NIGHT SPECIAL - Pro Mod points leader Kris Thorne stood on his stellar pass on Saturday night from the 68th annual Dodge Power Brokers U.S. Nationals to secure the number one qualifying position heading into final eliminations.
Thorne kicked off qualifying with a solid 5.831 at over 249 miles per hour in the first session on Friday afternoon but was able to step up big time and take advantage of the killer conditions on Saturday night. Thorne, behind the wheel of his Thorne Site/Boggs Gases Procharged Camarao, laid down a back-breaking 5.718 at over 250 miles per hour on Saturday night to shoot him up to the top of the field.
"It was a great run," Thorne said. "You always know when you're on a good run within the first sixty feet. And when it pins you in the seat, all you can do is hold on from there."
While Thorne is happy with the car's performance in qualifying, he knows all that counts is being there at the end of the day on race day.
"It always feels good to come out and flex your muscles," Thorne said. "But it's not the same as race day. We went to Brainerd and qualified number one and went out first round. We didn't care to come out here and qualify number one. We want to run good on race day and try and get the win here in Indy for our first time."
Thorne and his closest pursuer in the Pro Mod point standings, "Trickie" Rickie Smith, will head into the final eliminations on the same side of the ladder with a chance of meeting in the semifinals. Smith was the first to dip into the 5.70s on Saturday night but qualified in the number four position with his run of 5.755 at 251 miles per hour set in the final session.
Thorne will have a date with the series runner-up from last year, Brandon Snider, in the first round of eliminations, and Smith will square off against Mike Thielen in his opening round matchup.
Sliding in, in the number two qualified position is 2019 U.S. Nationals champion, Mike Castellana. Castellana struggled in the first round on Friday. But just like Thorne was able to take advantage of the Disneyland-type conditions on Saturday night. Castella powered his Frank Manzo tuned Supercharged 1969 Camaro to a stout 5.725 at over 248 miles per hour.
Castellana will have a tough customer in the other lane when he pulls to the line for the first round of competition, however, as he will square off against the driver of one of the Bahrain 1 Racing Camaro's, Khalid AlBalooshi.
However, the model of consistency during the weekend goes to Eric Dillard, who's filling in for reigning Fueltech NHRA Pro Mod Series Champion, who tested positive for Covid-19 earlier in the week. Dillard got the call Wednesday morning that he would fill in for Gonzalez, and he has made the most of the opportunity.
Dillard kicked off qualifying behind the wheel of the Q80 Racing/EGR Racing Camaro with a 5.782 at 249 miles per hour which gave him the provisional number one qualifying spot after the first session. Dillard backed that up with an even quicker 5.735 at over 249 miles per hour before capping off qualifying with his best run of the weekend, clocking in a 5.732 at 249 miles per hour to slide him into the number three qualified spot.
But Dillard will be dealt an unlucky hand as he will face off against his El General Racing teammate Daniel Pharris in the opening round of action, which is scheduled for Sunday afternoon.
Adriano Kayayan vs. JR Gray Jr, Steve Jackson vs. Jerico Balduf, Sidnei Frigo vs. Stan Shelton, and Jason Scruggs vs. Justin Bond are the rest of the pairing in the first round of competition.
PLAYING ON THE BIG STAGE -- Since JR Gray Jr. got the call from legendary Pro Mod driver Mike Janis to fill the seat of his racecar car due to health concerns, the once-famous grudge racer has more than lived up to expectations.
In his first season behind the wheel of the Gray Contracting Camaro, Gray finished fifth in the world in the 2021 Fueltech NHRA Pro Mod Series standings, including grabbing his first national event win at the penultimate event of the season in Bristol.
While his sophomore season hasn't been ideal for him and his team, Gray is fully confident in his team, and does not doubt they will find their way back on track soon.
"We just continue working our way forward," Gray said. "These things have so many moving parts on them. We're always trying new stuff to pick up a little bit of speed. Mike Janis has assembled a great team with plenty of knowledge and experience."
Known as an assassin in the grudge racing scene, Gray has tasted victory in other big-time doorslammer races outside NHRA, like the popular small- tire race Radial vs. The World in 2020.
But now, Gray has the opportunity of racing on the biggest stage in the world of drag racing, the U.S. Nationals, and he's more than appreciative of the moment.
"It's real honoring," Gray admitted. "It's what you dreamed about as a kid. So to be able to make it here and drive Pro Mod is amazing."
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK - A NEW LEADER HEADED INTO THE FINAL SESSION AFTER Q2 UNDER THE LIGHTS
I’M NOT NEW TO THIS -- Eric Dillard wasn't expecting to be jumping behind the wheel of a Pro Mod car this weekend at the U.S. Nationals. The co-owner of Pro-Line Racing was supposed to be hanging out and enjoying the race as a spectator.
But when reigning Fueltech NHRA Pro Mod Series Champion Jose Gonzalez could not compete this weekend after testing positive for COVID-19, Dillard got the call to fill in. And while he hates the circumstances of why he's racing this weekend, Dillard is still relishing the opportunity to compete in drag racing’s biggest event.
"It's an unfortunate situation why I'm here. Jose wasn't feeling good," Dillard said. "I was able to come and step in for him for the race. The team wanted to get runs on the car and keep the team moving. But if you're ever going to get to run, for the only race you run out of the year to be the U.S. Nationals is not a bad way to do it. I'm super excited."
Dillard made the most of the opportunity right out of the box when he laid down a stellar 5.782-second pass at over 249 mph.
"It was pretty cool to roll up there and be able to do that the first run out of the gate," Dillard said. "We got a good team behind us, a great group of people over here, and just a great group all the way around. It was fun to jump in and make that run right out of the gate."
However, Dillard, who does a lot of racing on the small-tire scene, is not new to jumping behind the wheel of a Pro Mod car. Dillard made his first NHRA start in Pro Mod at U.S. Nationals in 2011 for Roger Burgess and R2B2 racing. And in a storybook fashion, he won the race, defeating Pro Mod legend Mike Castellana in the final.
And while Dillard doesn't race full-time in NHRA, he jumps behind the wheel and tests a lot of Pro Mod competitors’ cars.
"It's a blessing that I even get to test these guys’ cars," Dillard said. "So when I do come out, it's not like I'm jumping in and haven't been in a car in a long time. I get to make a lot of laps throughout the year but I don’t get to race much. So to be able to take all that and a do a race once a year, its extremely exciting for me."
Dillard hopes to go the distance this weekend behind the wheel of the Q80 Racing/EGR Racing Camaro. With the COVID rule in effect for replacing drivers, he will be earning points for Gonzalez, who is fifth, 232 out of the lead with four races remaining.
A THIN LINE BETWEEN LOVE AND HATE -- Nearly two weeks later, Doug Winters still feels the sting of losing in the final round at Brainerd, which is home to his sponsor.
"It still hurts," Winters admitted. "Everybody still congratulates me on the runner-up, which is good, but it's still bitter. We had a chance to win. We beat Rickie (Smith) seven hundredths on the tree and should have won the race based on our elapsed time, but our tires spun a little bit. I had to pedal it, and he came around me. So it's bittersweet. Glad we got the runner-up, but we didn't get that Wally, and I wanted to at Brainerd, the home track for Stinar."
Winters now turns his attention to trying to score his first national event win at the 68th annual NHRA U.S. Nationals. But even though a win at Indy would be memorable, Winters admits he has a love-hate relationship with NHRA's grandest race.
"We love coming here because it is the U.S. Nationals, the year's biggest event. But we hate it because it's the biggest event of the year," Winters admitted. "It's a long, drawn-out process. We get one run on Friday, two on Saturday, two on Sunday, and then Monday eliminations. We love coming here because it is the U.S. Nationals, you want that trophy, but it's just a long process to get through."
Overall, the 2022 Fueltech NHRA Pro Mod season has been a rollercoaster ride for Winters and his team. Winters sits eighth in the standings on the heels thanks to his showing at Brainerd and a quarterfinal finish at Richmond. Winters is confident that a win is not far away for him and his team, and he hopes it happens this weekend at Indy.
"One day, we're going to mess up and win one of these things," Winters declared. "Hopefully, it'll be this weekend."
NEW YORK STATE OF MIND -- The Pro Mod class has seen a lot of changes over the past year, from rule changes to new sponsorships jumping on board like FuelTech and D-Wagon, to qualifying bonus points and even the inaugural Pro Mod shootout at Brainerd.
Mike Castellana, one of the longest-tenured drivers in Pro Mod, has experienced the highs and lows the class has endured. And while he admires NHRA's attempt to try new things to help the overall growth of the class, he believes figuring out a way to get higher car counts should be a focus.
"I think all the things they're putting on are great for the class," Castellana said. "It definitely promotes it and pushes it. But they need to get the car count up, which they're working on. If they can get that done, that would be great."
Castellana comes from an era of Pro Mod when nitrous and supercharged cars were the only combinations for serious competitors. So when asked how he thought NHRA should go about getting more participation within the class, Castellana gave his honest opinion on where he thought the NHRA went wrong in the first place.
"Everybody looks at it differently, but I just happened to notice every time they add a new combination to the class to get more cars, they lose cars," Castellana said. "I know they do these things to get more cars, but it seems like it's working backward."
"My opinion, everyone's got their own. Back then, we had nitrous and blown. There would be 40 or 50 cars and cars on the waiting list to get in. Turbos weren't bad, and then they kept adding combinations, and in my opinion, it just worked in reverse."
But as for Indy goes, for many years, everybody wondered when Castellana would finally break through and capture his first career win at NHRA's most prestigious race. Given his credentials, it was difficult to fathom that one of the superstars of the class hadn’t experienced glory on NHRA's grandest stage.
Castellan’s frustration ended in 2019 when he upended "Trickie" Rickie Smith in the final round on a holeshot.
"It's great to win at the U.S. Nationals," Castellana said. "You don't get that time of your life too often, but we were able to get it done."
Three years later, Castellana returns to the U.S. Nationals looking to score another victory at the ‘Big Go.’ However, Castellana's 2022 season has had few highlights to date, with just one round win in six starts. A win at Indy would erase much of the disappointment.
"It's the biggest race of the year," Castellana said. "It's just a great race to be at. We're looking forward to running here this weekend, and hopefully, everything works out."
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK - DOORSLAMMERS AT THE BIG GO SET THE PACE
BACK TO THE SCENE - Current Pro Mod points leader Kris Thorne may be locked in a tight points battle with the legend "Trickie" Rickie Smith heading into this weekend's 68th annual NHRA U.S. Nationals. But one thing on Thorne's mind this weekend is settling a score with the track that kept him out of competition for a year.
Two years ago, at NHRA's most prestigious race, the U.S. Nationals, Thorne pulled off a thrilling upset in the first round of Pro Mod eliminations, cutting a psychic .006-second reaction time to defeat top qualifier Jason Scruggs.
However, Thornes' fortunes changed dramatically just past the finish line. After turning on the win light, his turbocharged Camaro darted across the track in the shutdown area, tagged the outside retaining wall and ultimately end up on his lid, sliding down the track before finally coming to a halt in the sandtrap.
"The crash kept me out all of 2021," Thorne said. "Once we got the car repaired, all we did was pretty much test."
That approach seemed to work well for Thorne and his team. Switching to the ProCharger combination, Thorne returned to NHRA Pro Mod competition in 2022 at the season-opening race in Gainesville, Florida. And in storybook fashion, he went out and won it, earning his first career national-event win.
The 2022 season has been a dream come true so far for Thorne, who enters this weekend's U.S. Nationals as the points leader on the strength of three wins. Still, Thorne would like nothing better than to score a win in his return to a track, and a race, that kept him away from competition for a lengthy period of time.
"We're back and we're going to have some revenge on the racetrack," Thorne declared. "We're back here with the same car, the same deal, the same guys, so hopefully we can overcome it."
LIVING THE INDY DREAM - The U.S. Nationals is not just the biggest drag race in America, it's the biggest and most prestigious drag race in the world. And that couldn't be more evident than with Khalid Al Balooshi, who hadn't raced in America until the late 2000s, but still understands the privilege and importance of racing at the 'Big Go.'
"This is a huge deal for me," Balooshi said. " From the first day I came to America, my dream was to come and race at Indy."
Eager to try his hand at capturing U.S. Nationals glory, Balooshi, who had yet to race in America at the time, recalled a funny story of when he finally thought he would get the chance to live out his dream of racing at Indy.
"In 2007, I drove for Al-Anabi, and Sheikh Khalid told me we would be going to America to race," Balooshi explained. "I said, 'Great! When will we be going?'"
Team owner Sheikh Khalid gave Balooshi a date, and Balooshi's eyes immediately lit up because he realized it was the same weekend as the U.S. Nationals. With his hopes at an all-time high, believing he would finally get his chance to race on the grandest stage, Balooshi was quickly brought back to reality.
"Are we going to Indy?" Balooshi asked. "He laughed and told me no, we would be going to some local race. He said Indy was not an easy race to just show up to. It's a long process. But I thought, 'Oh, great, we're going to the U.S. Nationals,' and he told me, 'No, we're a long way away from racing at Indy.'"
Balooshi doesn't remember exactly where he was racing that Labor Day weekend in 2007, but does recall that it was an ADRL (American Drag Racing League) race, and that he reached the semifinals. Still, his heart was at the U.S. Nationals that weekend.
However, it wasn't long before Balooshi finally got his chance to live out his dream of racing at Indy. He got the opportunity to race on the biggest stage and jump behind the wheel of a Top Fuel Eliminator at the U.S. Nationals from 2012-15 with Al-Anabi Racing and Don Schumacher Racing.
Balooshi's next goal is to nab a win at NHRA's most iconic event, and he hopes it this weekend behind the wheel of his Bahrain 1 Pro Mod Camaro.
"I've been to the semifinals a couple of times, one time in a Top Fuel car, and one time in a Pro Mod car," he said, "but my dream is to win Indy. I hope this weekend we have a good shot to go do it."
MY MIND'S PLAYING TRICKS ON ME - We've all heard the talk about "Trickie" Rickie Smith possibly retiring at the end of the 2022 NHRA Pro Mod season. And what a way it would be to go out as he now sits just 25 points out of the lead behind Thorne with just four races to go.
Oddly enough, Smith, who captured an emotional win at the last race out in Brainerd, Minn., says he's not thinking about winning the championship.
"My goal is to finish second in the points. If we could do that, I would be tickled to death," he said. "If the championship falls our way, then definitely, we will take it. With the rules the way they are, I'm the only nitrous car out here, so if I can come out of here finishing second, that would be awesome."
Is this one of Smith's mind games he's trying to play with the competition, or is he really content with finishing second? We may never know, but the driver of the nitrous Chevy Camaro has a definite calm heading into this weekend's U.S. Nationals.
"I wanted to win a race before I retired, and we did it," he said. "That took some stress off me, but as we get into qualifying and eliminations, I'll put myself right back into that mode, and we'll try and win."
But as far as the U.S. Nationals goes, Smith, who's raced at NHRA's most prestigious race for many years, still gets excited about racing every Labor Day weekend.
"No better time," Smith said. "This is the 'Big Go.' We're ready. Everything is in good shape. All our parts are in good shape. I guess the biggest thing you have to have is a little bit of luck."
THE OLD PRO MOD BUCKET LIST - Popular Pro Mod driver Lyle Barnett has made quite a name for himself outside of the NHRA and behind the wheel of his Elite Motorsports turbocharged Camaro. But winning the U.S. Nationals is one thing he would love to check off the list.
"This is what you dream of," Barnett said. "If you've ever wanted to go NHRA drag racing, you dream of the opportunity to race here. I've been watching NHRA drag racing since I can remember, and this is the one we always wanted to come to."
While Barnett is relatively new to driving Pro Mod in the NHRA, surprisingly enough, his very first time even attending U.S. Nationals was last year. He enjoyed a stellar showing, advancing to the Pro Mod quarterfinals. And even though he didn't win the race, sharing his experience with his dad made racing at Indy all the more special.
"My dad and I always wanted to come and watch," Barnett said. "For us to come here together for the first time and get to compete, it doesn't get any better than that."
But the highlight of Barnett's 2021 campaign was when he finished off the year strong, capturing his first career win in Dallas, then closing out the 2021 Pro Mod season with a victory at the season finale in Las Vegas — grabbing two of the season's final three races.
With hopes of using that momentum going into the new year and being a serious contender for the championship, Barnett, who sits seventh, 264 points out of the lead, admits his season has not gone according to plan.
"We've had a mediocre season at best," Barnett said. "Bad luck on our side a couple of times. I got into the wall at Topeka and ran well in Brainerd; just came up a little bit short to Jose Gonzalez. I've been to one final this year, but haven't gotten a win."
But despite the rollercoaster season, Barnett knows capturing a win at the U.S. Nationals would more than turn his season around.
"If I could win Indy, it would start a good momentum push for the rest of the year," Barnett admitted. "Winning the 'Big Go' is something very few people that raced NHRA, period, have ever done. It's the most prestigious drag race ever, and I'm excited to be here, but we're here to try and win.
"You crave this one. This is the one you want. If you're old and decrepit, and you're wiping the dust off your trophy shelf, it would be nice to have one that says U.S. Nationals trophy."