2022 NHRA U.S. NATIONALS - TOP FUEL NOTEBOOK
WITH NOTHING TO PROVE, TOP FUEL WINNER BROWN SET TO BURST INTO COUNTDOWN – AND SMELL THE ROSES - Antron Brown, though fresh from his drought-ending Top Fuel victory at Topeka, said as the Dodge Power Brokers U.S. Nationals approached, said, “We have some things to show and prove.”
He showed Monday that he and his Matco Tools / Toyota Dragster team are peaking at prime time after he has “put all the pieces in place.” And he proved that he can outmuscle Top Fuel’s “best at their best.”
With a 3.706-second elapsed time at a 321.65-mph speed on the 1,000-foot course at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park, Brown interrupted No. 1 qualifier Brittany Force’s momentum in the final round.
That denied her a final coup in her achievement as regular-season leader as well as the historical distinction of being the first woman in 40 years (since Shirley Muldowney in 1982) to win the U.S. Nationals in Top Fuel.
Brown earned his 54th Top Fuel victory and 70th overall. And it evened his U.S. Nationals success at Indianapolis with two triumphs in both the Top Fuel and Pro Stock Motorcycle classes. He won the Top Fuel final also in 2011 and won in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class in 2000 and 2004.
It also completed a Toyota sweep of the nitro classes, as he shared the winners circle with fellow first-year team owner Ron Capps, winner of his first Funny Car trophy at the U.S. Nationals and the class’ inaugural Pep Boys All-Star Call-Out.
Other winners Monday were Pro Stock’s Greg Anderson, who became only the second in NHRA history to log at least 100th triumphs, and Pro Stock Motorcycle’s Matt Smith, a two-time winner of this race.
Brown powered past Gatornationals winner Tripp Tatum, four-time and current champion Steve Torrence, and rising star Justin Ashley to reach his career 129th final round.
Tatum he called “a giant killer.” Torrence had said the night before, after winning $80,000 in the Pep Boys All-Star Call-Out, that “we need to get out there and start wrecking heads,” so he was in a mood to throw down. And he knew full well what Ashley was capable of right from the launch on.
Then Brown aced his biggest test of the day against the driver he called “a juggernaut” (Force) and the crew chief (Dave Grubnic) he playfully dubbed “the mad scientist.” He said he knew “they run big speed and come on the big end with a hard charge.”
So it was no Labor Day picnic for the Matco Tools / Toyota Dragster owner-driver. He said the final “was like the longest 3.7 seconds in my entire life” and even said, “It felt like a car accident” in slow motion.
“And when that win light came on, I was like, ‘Man, look what this team has come through, where we’re at, from start to finish . . . All of our guys put that work in to get those results. And that is a testament to all of our guys and gals. We’re doing this as a family. We never lost the faith. We never gave up [even while] people go, ‘When you going to get that first win?’
“With the Countdown being right in front of us and us being 11th or 12th three races ago, to be at No. 6 . . . I think we’re in the conversation. We just want to go out there and compete for that championship. We want to compete at a high level,” Brown said.
“All I ask for is that we give it our all and let the chips fall where they fall. Don’t talk about it – let the racetrack do the talking. We’ve got to stay humble. We’ve got to stay poised. We’ve got to stay fierce. And we’ve got to go out there and give it all we’ve got – because that’s what everybody else is going to do. And we’re going to let the win lights do the talking.”
Brown said of the John Force Racing team, “They're No. 1 in our class for a reason. I mean, did you see when the sun was out in the middle of the day? What did they throw out that racetrack? A 3.640. So we knew that going in. And we're just saying, ‘OK, well, we just got to be consistent, stick to our game, don't get overwhelmed. And you got to go out there and do what you do.’
“I have nothing but faith with Brian Corradi and Mark Oswald. I don't know if you look at their track record, they won a lot of championships, and we actually had the first car to ever run in the .60s period, when everybody was still running the mid-.70s. So it's just a matter of time for us to get to where we need to be,” he said. “But definitely Grubnic has set the bar, and the whole Monster team, the whole team, they're juggernauts. And Brittany's doing a great job driving, period. When you can go up and race them and take them out, you've done something special for the weekend. But this whole class is just ridiculous right now – the whole class.”
When the Countdown starts two weeks from now at Reading, Pa.’s Maple Grove Raceway with the Pep Boys Nationals, Force still will be in first place in the standings and Brown sixth. Nos. 2-5, in order, are Mike Salinas, Ashley, Torrence, and Josh Hart.
Brown said he got some sage advice from a long-time friend this weekend: “Ken Veney, who won a lot of championships with a lot of different drivers in his race car, a lot of races, set a lot of world records . . . Shouldn’t be letting the secret out. He came over to me this race. He says, ‘Antron, my mom used to play basketball, and when she took a foul shot, she says, ‘Take a deep breath, smell the roses, and then blow the candles out.’ So this race is definitely dedication to Ken. He came over and told me that. My lights somehow went from .060s to .040s to .030s all day long. And he woke up a sleeping giant. Ken Veney, I'm going to be smelling the roses and blowing out their candles for the rest of the year.”
SUNDAY NOTEBOOK - FORCE STORMS BACK WITH RECORD RUN TO SEIZE NO. 1 STARTING SPOT; PHILLIPS CONNECT PERFORMANCE BONUS IS NEWEST ENTICEMENT; FOLEY WANTS DANCE INVITATION
With a stunning final-session pass Sunday that pushed Justin Ashley from his No. 1-qualifying position and rewrote both ends of the Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park records, points leader Brittany Force and her Monster Energy Dragster team excelled under pressure to lead the Top Fuel field into Monday eliminations for the Dodge Power Brokers U.S. Nationals.
She regained her footing from a shaky start Friday and Saturday and burst to the front of the quickest field in Top Fuel history. Her 3.640-second elapsed time to Dan Mercier’s 3.758 represented the smallest spread from Nos. 1 through 16 since she led the 2019 line-up at this race. That was when she was No. 1 starter with a 3.645-second E.T., and T.J. Zizzo anchored the field with a 3.775.
Other top qualifiers were Ron Capps (Funny Car), Greg Anderson (Pro Stock), and Angelle Sampey (Pro Stock Motorcycle).
Unqualified through the first two sessions of the NHRA’s marquee race, Force made the field in advancing to the final round of Saturday’s Pep Boys All-Star Call-Out. She made her audacious move Sunday for her seventh top spot this season and 39th in all.
After a second rainstorm of the day wiped out the remainder of the fifth and final qualifying session Sunday, Force said, “This is the biggest race. It’s ‘The Big Go.’ It's the one race everybody comes to because they want to win. They come in with this extra motivation, and it's just Indy. Everybody wants to accomplish something here.
“We grabbed that No. 1 qualifier. We made a killer run. We struggled every lap and finally got it figured out in that one qualifying run,” she said. “So that .64 was outstanding. They said it was a track record, which was pretty cool to be able to do that. And then they announced earlier today that it's the quickest field. So, to be a part of that is that history right there, and to be a part of that with 25 cars is pretty outstanding. To be able to come here to Indy and take that No. 1, we're just excited. It's definitely a big one for our entire Monster Energy team, everybody on board, tuner David Grubnic, assistant crew chief Mac Savage, and all the Monster boys.”
But she has no time – or desire – to sit back and soak in the accomplishment yet.
“We can't relax until tomorrow [Monday] is over. Tomorrow's a really important day. That's where we really need to dominate on the racetrack, going rounds and making sure we stay in the points lead leaving here, because the Countdown is here now.”
The six-race sprint to what she hopes is her second Top Fuel championship will begin in two weeks at Reading, Pa.’s Maple Grove Raceway, with the Pep Boys Nationals. The sanctioning body will compress the standings following the conclusion of the U.S. Nationals. The No. 1 Countdown seed will have a 20-point advantage over the No. 2-ranked driver, but the other title-eligible racers will be separated by only 10 points.
“Everything resets,” she said, admitting that getting that No. 1 designation “is our main priority. But yes, to be able to lead, you always want to leave your mark somewhere, and we've done that at multiple tracks when we got track record and leaving our mark until next year. It's a pretty cool deal to pull off.”
And that was about all the celebration she would allow herself Sunday night.
“It's a long weekend and it hasn't even started yet. We start fresh tomorrow,” Force said. Monday, she said, is “a big day, so [key to winning is] staying locked in the game. It's just keeping our focus, keeping our head in the game. Really, just not being overwhelmed by it all but looking one round at a time, moving to the next one, trying to get lane choice and just one run as it comes, and we move to the next one. It has to be everyone involved. I need to be there as a driver, every single guy on the team, Grubnic, and all of us. We’re planning to deliver.”
The entire journey through Indianapolis has been nerve-wracking for her
“I think we were all nervous. We didn't know if the rain was going to get us, and we didn't know how many qualifying runs we were going to get. And going into the Call-Out, we had nothing under our belt here,” Force said. “You try to focus on getting in the Call-Out, Pep Boys All Star Callout win, but also making sure you get qualified in the show in case today rains out. So there was a lot of pressure. There was a lot going into it.
“And then Dave Grubnic pulls out the run that he does, and I don't even think he was that happy about it,” she said. “I think they interviewed him, and the guy said he wanted it to run better. It was supposed to run better. That's just Grubby for you. But overall, awesome run for these guys. I wish we would have gotten one more tonight, just to have backed it up.
“When you’re on the outside looking in and you see the [rainy] forecast, your nerves go through the roof. And it's not just me. You can see it in our whole pits, it’s all the guys. There's so much going on, there's so much packed into one weekend, and that's what makes it so much fun for the fans and a challenge for all these teams. But the good thing is our guys are all very positive, Grubnic’s positive, and he'll come out and he won't just say, ‘Get in the show.’ He wants to go to the top. And we're like, ‘Are you sure you want to do that?’ But this whole team, they're awesome. They support me, and I support them. We always try to keep that positive, just a positive feel in our pits, always.”
She knows full well that she has had more competition than usual and that each team rises to its potential at this historic facility that has hosted this event since 1961.
“Everybody wants to win here. That's why every driver's out here, every team, every crew chief. Everybody wants to win Indy. It's on everyone's bucket list,” Force said.
“I've stood in many winners circles, my dad's winner circles since I was a baby,” the daughter of five-time Indianapolis Funny Car winner John Force. Her older sister Ashley won here multiple times, and, she said, “It's just one of those bucket list things everyone wants to check off. ‘The Big Go,’ Indianapolis, biggest race of the season. Two events in one. There's nothing like it. There's nothing like this race. And then the crowd that it's brought in so far is just outstanding. It's exciting to be here, to be a part of it, but really we want to take home and win we're in a great position. We're No. 1.”
FORCE CLOSES IN ON $30,000 PRIZE – Phillips Connect, primary sponsor for Justin Ashley’s Top Fuel dragster, has partnered with the sanctioning body to establish the “Phillips Connect 300 at the 1/8” program, starting at this event. The special club will honor the first 10 drivers in either Top Fuel or Funny Car to reach the 300-mph milestone in the eighth-mile.
The first driver in NHRA history in one of the nitro categories to reach the 300-mph mark by 660 feet during qualifying or eliminations will receive a special $30,000 bonus as the first driver in the “Phillips Connect 300 at the 1/8” program. Each of the remining nine will earn recognition and a bonus. The second driver to hit the goal will receive $13,000, while the third gets $9,000. The fourth through 10th drivers will each receive $3,000. The prize will go to the nitro driver, regardless of whether he or she competes in Top Fuel or Funny Car.
And it’s no secret Brittany Force wants to be the one to grab the biggest share of the purse. She raced Steve Torrence Saturday in the Pep Boys All-Star Call-Out for the $80,000 winner’s share of that payout, but as runner-up, she had to settle for a much smaller check. So to be the first to get a bonus from Phillips Connect would be a coup.
“Yes, that's what we're looking for. That's on the line. And it's pretty cool that this whole deal came together. It's an awesome thing. It's exciting that’s something [crew chief] David Grubnic sees
“He wants to attack. He wants to go after the money,” Force said after the early Sunday qualifying session in which she clocked a 299.73-second time at 660 feet (eighth-mile). It was part of her record-breaking pass that reset her own 2019 elapsed-time track mark of 3.645. She also regained the track speed record that Ashley swiped from her Saturday night. He eclipsed her 334.57 mph with his 335.32, and she countered Sunday in Q4 with 337.75.
“We're safe in the show now. We just ran a great number, put a great number on the board,” Force said. “So, if we get this next one in, it’ll give us the opportunity to see if we can push it a little bit more and get to that number that we want.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Grubnic said after that fourth overall run of the weekend that he had “slowed it down. The track temperature was coming up. We weren't pushing for that. But I had to slow it down. We struggled on our first two runs. I had to lay up last night for the shootout. I wanted to put a number up to see what we could have done.”
At the Brainerd, Minn., race, Force came close to achieving that number (with a 660-foot speed of 299.00 mph), before Phillips Connect made the offer. Ashley wasn’t far behind her at that event, posting a 298.27 eight-mile effort.
WANTS TO GO TO THE DANCE – Doug Foley isn’t interested in being a wallflower. He’s yearning to be on the dance floor. He’ll be working all during this winter to work on his dance steps, find his rhythm, so he can get an invitation from the NHRA.
But right now, the independent Top Fuel owner-driver knows the Camping World Drag Racing Series championship prom is coming up in two weeks and he won’t have a tuxedo, boutonnière, limo, red carpet, or band or DJ in the background.
“As of Monday night, everybody else is in the top 12 and Doug Foley is 13th. He’s 13th and not invited to the dance,” Foley said. “The separation will be a couple of hundred points between the 12th and the 13th guy.”
And that’s what bugs him.
“We just feel like we're 0.05 [of a second in elapsed-time performance] away. We're five-hundredths away. We're missing something a little bit,” Foley said. “We changed the tune-up. Then we had to deal with hot weather. Now we're going to go into some good-weather races. We'll be able to put the pedal to the metal and see.”
He’s here at the U.S. Nationals, improving his execution each day. He was 12th in the tentative line-up Friday and stepped up to ninth place late Saturday. He also will be going to Countdown races at Reading, Charlotte, and St. Louis – “as long as we still have some money in the bank. And then we’re done,” he said.
“We’ll stop there. I’m really not trying [to finish this season]. I'm more trying to put effort into getting the car funded, getting the team funded for next year. I don't care if I go to one or two more races. I really don't,” Foley said. “I want to go the whole season. It’s been one of my goals is to go at least one year full-time to kind of see where you stand.
So he said he plans to “use these next four races to try and figure out where we're really at going into the winter. It's going to be a long offseason.” He’s referring to the fact the 2023 season will begin in March with the Winternationals at Gainesville, Fla., rather than the traditional February Winternationals at Pomona, Calif.
Foley said, “We're going to try and push the envelope a little bit in the next couple of races and see what we can do and then see where it goes. We need to try and find those 0.05. I don't expect this team to run with Brittany. I don't expect it. I don't expect any of those numbers. I'll be disappointed if we don't run a .60 something by the end of the year. We've never done that. We ran a .74 in Virginia, which was really a .73. I didn't drive the car very well, so .73 is technically our fastest pass. So I think we have [three- or four-hundredths of second] to find right now, and the air will help. We’re pushing it.”
Foley recorded his career-best speed on this dragstrip at this race in 2020 (when the U.S. Nationals was the last of four races). “That’s when Doug Kuch was tuning it. It was the Friday-night session of the U.S. Nationals,” he said. “I think that put me, like ninth. I don't remember having lane choice. I think it was an eight-nine battle.” [For the record, he was eighth and had lane choice over Cory McClenathan but lost in that first round.]
Fast forward to today and Foley said he and business partner Tim Lewis and the Foley-Lewis Racing crew “are kind of where we feel like we're kind of almost in a little category of our own, which is good in some ways, because when people are counting what cars are going to qualify, they're counting us as one of those cars. But we have to figure out how to get out of that little group and get into the big group in the front. We have to be with those, I don't even say eight – with those five or six cars. Yeah, we're not with the cool kids. We're an unknown category.”
However, he isn’t 100-percent comfortable about the level he has reached: “I think so. But I still feel like I don't know. I still feel like we have more respect to earn and maybe I have a little bit of a chip on my shoulder that we really haven't accomplished what I wanted. Like I said, I don't expect to be a Britney status. You can't compare to what we're spending what they're spending. Cubic dollars means something. Money means something.”
But Foley said, “I feel like we got the right people, we got the right parts, got a brand new car. Last year, I was building a brand-new car. It was a big deal for us. My last brand-new car was when I crashed in 2006. So I came out with a brand new car in 2007. In the second run, I ran it into the sand trap in Englishtown. Brand-new car. We're trying to make the right moves.
“I think we're making them maybe just a little slower. I'm getting a little impatient. At 58 years old, I'm not going to say I'm running out of time, but mentally I feel like I'm running out of time. Not physically. Physically, I feel like I could be here for another 10 to 12 years. Mentally I can hear the tick-tock in my ear,” Foley said.
“I look at the accomplishments, they have been a little slow. I dragged my feet a little bit instead of coming in. But I also have to understand, it's hard to go to a crew chief and say, ‘I want to run really fast, but here's my tiny little budget.’ I have to understand the tools that I'm giving that person to work with,” he said.
“It bothers me. It bothers me because, I will tell you, this car, given a chance, is better than four or five cars that have full-time funding. And that's not a knock on them. They did something I didn’t. Good for them. They got money. They found it. I feel like we would only be better with that funding if we didn't have to worry about that side of it. We're going to make a huge push this winter. This team is $500,000 away from running the full season. And the thing is, for $500,000, we could give somebody an unbelievable product for their investments. Unbelievable. A lot of people say, ‘Don't undersell the sport.’ I think maybe I could sell that for what I think we need, and then turn them into a million dollars two years later by showing the value, by showing what we can provide. It's hard to show that if you're always the guy who's not in the dance.”
EUROPEAN TOP FUEL ROOKIE VISITS BIG GO – Ida Zetterström might not be well-known yet to American drag-racing fans.
But the Scandinavian Top Fuel phenom, who is visiting the Dodge Power Brokers U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park this weekend, said she “was hoping one day I can come over here and do some racing. That would be definitely the dream."
"It's my first year at [the U.S.] Nationals,” Zetterström said. “We've been to some of the NHRA events, but never U.S. Nationals before." Getting the chance to race here in a dragster one day, she said, “would be something just extraordinary. I mean, Indy's the biggest one you can do.”
The intimidation factor of racing at this history-laden facility, she figured, wouldn’t be all that great.
“I mean, I would be a rookie, but I'm a rookie in Europe, too. And to race with people that are better than you and have more experience, that's how you grow. So I think you should never be afraid of racing with people that have more experience. That's what will get you better."
What struck Zetterström when she got her first glimpse of this event was its size and scope: "It's so big, so many cars. Also, when it's going on for so many days . . . I mean, for us, there's some fantastic racing going on in Europe, but we don't have the car counts that you guys have over here, and it's spectacular."
Zetterström, 28, born in Stockholm, Sweden, and living in the Aland Islands of Finland, has an impressive resume already.
Just two years after she started racing in the class Super Street Bike, the European version of the U.S. class Pro Street Bike in 2017, she won the Scandinavian championship. She was the first woman to do so.
Zetterström grew up spending time in her Pro Stock and Pro Modified drag-racing dad’s shop and tagged along and observed as he worked for other teams, as well. She started her own driving career at age eight in a Jr. Dragster and at 16 earned her Super Comp license.
However, she said, "I always dreamed of running Top Fuel since I was a little kid. I ran Juniors since I was eight, and then I moved over to Super Comp bike. I had a racing bike for about six, seven years. But Top Fuel was always still the dream, and I worked on it in the background. I contacted Rune Fjeld Motorsport and asked if we could start working on license and Rune put me in one of the cars, and we licensed. And from there, it goes."
She did say that she never has “been in a canopy car, so I will only race the open cars. I would be in whatever I'm able to get in."
This weekend, she’s a spectator, and she said, “Well, it's not easy coming as a spectator, but I mean, to come to Indy [with] 25 Top Fuel [cars], everything . . . I can't complain.”
TANGLED WEB OF BUSINESS, ENTERTAINMENT – Tony Schumacher, bitten last week by a black widow spider, sported a T-shirt with an image of one of the creatures Sunday. He struggled all weekend to get into the field and finally did in the fourth of five qualifying sessions. After taking a spot on the grid, Schumacher explained that he wasn’t being cavalier about his situation, not being disrespectful of the grinding work his Maynard-Schumacher/Scag Dragster crew had been doing.
“I’m not going to lie . . . you know what I do? I remind myself in an intense situation, the last day of qualifying when you’re not in the field, you’re here to entertain,” Schumacher said. “I wore this shirt to remind myself I’m not a doctor saving a child’s life. We're out here pleasing people. And if you can’t laugh at this stuff. Fans, we love you guys, and we’re out here to entertain and make your day better. I wore this to remind me to be happy. When I'm happy, I can make you happy.”
He guessed that it was “about half-track” that he knew his car was going to deliver a weekend-salvaging run. “It left really good. It was our old machine back,” he said.
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK - STEVE TORRENCE MAKES BOLD STATEMENT IN WINNING PEP BOYS ALL-STAR CALL-OUT; ASHLEY REGAINS PROVISIONAL TOP QUALIFYING SPOT; CURRENT DNQ LIST HAS SOME SURPRISES
In less than 7.4 seconds Saturday, Steve Torrence removed any skepticism about his ability to dominate in the NHRA Top Fuel class once again, purged his season-long frustrations, and injected a huge dose of drama into not just this weekend’s Dodge Power Brokers U.S. Nationals but also into the upcoming Countdown to the Championship.
The $80,000 he pocketed for winning the rain-postponed inaugural Pep Boys All-Star Call-Out, which took place during qualifying for the regular-season finale, was further validation.
With his winning 3.701-second pass in the semifinal against Justin Ashley and his 3.692 in the final of the bonus race that began at Gainesville, Fla., Torrence continued a streak that should silence his doubters. He reached the finals at Topeka, then recorded his first victory of the year the following week at Brainerd, Minn., before defeating Brittany Force early Saturday evening at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park.
“Tons of respect for Brittany Force and that team, because they’ve been bad to the bone,” Torrence said immediately after exiting his Capco Contractors Dragster. “But these Capco Boys and Toyota Boys, we’ve been bad to the bone for five years.
“We didn’t forget what we were doing,” Torrence said. “We struggled a little bit, but you’ve got to stay with it. You’ve got to persevere. We’re standing proud right now. Two finals, one win, and a win in the shootout.” Then, although it was unclear to whom he was speaking, he said, “We don’t look so stupid right now, because we’ve got the money, Big Dog.”
He said this race-within-a-race triumph “is huge for us. I wouldn’t say that we’ve had a difficult season, because we’ve been no lower than fourth in the points. But it’s not indicative of the last five seasons that we’ve had where we’ve been able to really dominate and at this point in the season be so far ahead that we’re not worried about losing that No. 1 seed.
“But mainly, the biggest thing is just fielding the questions so many times, time and time again, of ‘What’s wrong with you? Why aren’t you winning? Why are you not doing like you were?’ I felt like I answered that question more than a million times. To be able to go to two finals in a row, win one of them, and go to the shootout race and win 80-grand, it’s just validating that maybe we’re not as dumb as everybody thought we were. We didn’t forget what the goal and what the objective was. We just deviated from the norm to develop a new platform. It’s all going in the right direction now,” Torrence said.
“We’ve been in the situation where you lead the points all year and you go into the Countdown and you lose every bit of that hard work and effort and money that you wasted to get to that point – and you lose the championship. Then we’ve been also in the position that where you throw it all away again, but you win six races in a row and win the championship. So we've been on polar opposite sides of the scenario,” he said.
“But I think at this point, we're maybe coming into the right timing, the right position, the right program at this race, at Indy, to march into the Countdown with a lot of confidence and a lot of strength. I mean, we're a strong team. Justin [Ashley] just said it's a culture that you create. It's the people that are the team. It's not the parts. It's not the pieces. It's Richard Hogan, Bobby Lagana, every one of those Capco Boys that we count on and get us to where we're at, and that's what we've done.
Torrence said, “I'm only as good as the car that they give me. But when you're confident in it and you're confident in yourself, I say this all the time, and, I mean, I don't want to pat [Tony] Schumacher on the back, but the guy has been in so many high-pressure situations that that's what makes him good. That's why it never doesn't rattle you when you race for $100,000, you race for $80,000, you race for the championship, you race for the win at Indy. When you've been there, it's not a complacency, but it's not a distraction of nervousness. I have a job to do. I need to go up there and step on the gas on time, drive it straight, and win this race. They're going to give me the car to outrun her [Force], and I need to move on. That's just the mindset that you have to be in. And I think you only get that with experience.”
Despite the temptation, Torrence said Saturday’s accomplishment wasn’t his “I told you so” moment.
“No. Other than just winning a race, I just don't have to answer the same question over and over,” he said. “You don't win races and championships by not trusting the people that got you there. In Texas, we say you got to dance with the girl that brought you. You just stick it out. We got the same guys, the same car, the same pieces, everything. I went years without winning a race and everybody made a huge deal about me going 15 races without winning. And I'm like, ‘I sucked for a long time before I ever won a race. I don't know what was wrong with you guys. I'm happy just to be here.’ And if you look around, there's a lot of other cars that would like to have the season that we've had so far. Like I said, we didn't go lower than fourth. On our worst day we're still pretty scrappy.”
Saturday’s semifinal round pitted Torrence against Justin Ashley in the Phillips Connect/Vita C Dragster and Force, driver of the Monster Energy Dragster, against Mike Salinas with his Pep Boys/Scrappers Racing entry.
In the final, his 3.692-second elapsed time at 329.02 mph on the 1,000-foot course trumped Force’s 3.704, 330.31.
ASHLEY LOSES, RECAPTURES NO. 1 POSITION – Much of the spotlight Saturday at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park shone on Steve Torrence, who’s $80,000 richer, partly at Justin Ashley’s expense.
Ashley earned the first-day provisional No. 1 qualifying spot with a 3.716-second, 330.23-mph performance but Torrence put a double-whammy on him during Saturday’s opening round of qualifying.
That session happened to be the semifinals of the Pep Boys All-Star Call-Out. Torrence eliminated him, 3.701 seconds to 3.721, and replaced him as the tentative leader.
However, Ashley didn’t allow Torrence to have all of the spoils Saturday. He roared back in the second qualifying session of the day with a 3.671-second elapsed time – only the second of the weekend below 3.7 – to take back that top position.
Moreover, Ashley did it with the track-record speed: 335.32. It broke Brittany Force’s year-old standard of 334.57. Her track E.T. mark of 3.645 seconds remains intact.
“That's huge. I think all-in-all, it was actually a great day,” Ashley said.
“Obviously, we didn't accomplish what we wanted to. We wanted to win that shootout. We wanted to win it bad,” Ashley said. “But we really went up there with a plan, and we executed that plan. I think you just got to tip your cap to Steve and his team. They did a great job, and they deserve to win that. But, yeah, I mean, to go out there at night and run a 3.67 like that at 335 mph, that's the type of run where you really feel it in the clutch and as you turn the corner, you’re excited to see the time slip. You know it's going to come up with something fast, something good. So it's a great job of our Phillips Connect team all day, really, all weekend so far.”
He said, “It's pretty wild to actually think about. We have another day [of qualifying], so we'll see if it actually holds. I mean, 335 mph at Indy, where there's so much history. This track is so historic. It really just means so much to us. It's really an amazing feeling. Like I said yesterday [Friday], I was here 15 years ago when my father won here and I was hanging out at the top end. So now to be here, to hold the track speed record, I'm along for the ride. It really speaks volumes of our entire team. They're doing an amazing, amazing job.”
Ashley doesn’t inquire much about the Phillips Connect/Vita C Dragster’s tune-up, but he has an ear out to what crew chiefs Mike Green and Tommy DeLago might be planning.
“I don't ask, man. No, I mean, I heard Rob Flynn [Mike Salinas’ crew chief] say, to be honest with you, ‘I think a .67 is out there.” So I'm like, ‘Well, if a .67 is out there, Mike Green is probably going to try and run a .67,’” he said. “So I knew being qualified well, I'm sure we went up there thinking we might qualify three or four at the time. You can try and get after it a little bit. So I wasn't surprised we ran a .67, and it was out there. I needed to just get after it. Still just a stellar run.”
Two final qualifying sessions Sunday will set the field for eliminations Monday morning.
SURPRISING QUALIFYING RESULTS – Krista Baldwin, driving her Lucas Oil/McLeod Dragster, anchored the Friday-night field at 3.866 seconds, 305.77 mph. And in her wake were some surprising results.
Unqualified heading into Saturday’s second of five scheduled sessions – and keeping a close eye on the rainy-weather forecast – were Kyle Wurtzel, Scott Palmer, Brittany Force, Spencer Massey, Austin Prock, Tony Schumacher, Lex Joon, and Scott Farley.
Following the first Saturday and second-overall session, the class had a new provisional No. 1 qualifier in Steve Torrence. Only seven of the 22 who made passes (Kyle Wurtzel, Dan Mercier, Antron Brown, Billy Torrence, Josh Hart, Steve Torrence, and Justin Ashley) made it down the racetrack without trouble. Eleven lost traction. Two (Lex Joon and Will Smith) couldn’t get their cars to fire, and two (Tony Schumacher and Alex Laughlin) had mechanical problems.
Baldwin was bumped out. Cameron Ferré, who didn’t make a pass Friday, wasn’t quick enough to rise above No. 23. And still among the unqualified after that second chance were Schumacher, the driver with the most Top Fuel victories here (10); Force, who has dominated the class all season long and owns both ends of both the track and national records; and the proven and persistent Prock.
“Off to a tough start this weekend at the Big Go. Definitely had no intentions of smoking the tires Q1,” Prock said. “We were trying to be cautious and just make a nice clean A-to-B run, and it came loose. We will regroup [overnight Friday] and get this Montana Brand / Rocky Mountain Twist car in line.” And his crew chiefs, Joe Barlam and Rahn Tobler, did just that.
Prock rebounded in the third qualifying session, posting what at the time was the fastest speed of the meet at 333.58 mph. Justin Ashley surpassed that later in the session with 335.32 mph for the track record. But Prock broke into the field at the tentative No. 12 slot.
Hoping any forecasted rain showers won’t materialize Sunday are the non-qualified nine: Laughlin, Smith, Baldwin, Schumacher, Palmer, Massey, Ferré, Joon, and Farley.
FORCE TEMPERS BAD NEWS WITH GOOD NEWS – For points leader Brittany Force and her Monster Energy Dragster team, Saturday was what she called “kind of a bittersweet day.”
She was runner-up to Steve Torrence in the Pep Boys All-Star Call-Out, but even as she advanced to the final round, she remained unqualified.
And she admitted after defeating the tire-smoking Mike Salinas that “it’s hard to reset [after a missed Friday opportunity that left her off the 16-car grid. “You come out here and you go right into this thing. You go right into this Call-Out. We've only had now the one qualifying pass last night. We didn't get down there.”
Then, referring to her less-than-stellar 4.016-second winning elapsed time against Salinas in the bonus-race semifinals, she said, “That one, we got lucky somehow. We got to that stripe first. It was ugly. I stepped back on it and just prayed that we'd get there before they did. But also, thank you to Monster Energy, FlavRPak, this entire team, and Mike Salinas and Pep Boys for putting the show on. We're excited to have it back this year, and we're going to try to win this thing.”
Meanwhile, her crew chief, Dave Grubnic said back on the starting line, “So, that's disappointing. That far down . . . we weren't expecting. We adjusted it from last night. Our timer was a .68, .70 flat. We thought it’d run it. So we'll have to go back and look at it and get it figured out.”
He did, and Force improved to the provisional No. 4 starting position. She made the field at this points with a 3.704-second run, but that was the one that fell short against Torrence. And once again, she missed an opportunity, this one with $80,000 on the line.
“This Monster Energy / Flav-R-Pac team, we struggled a little bit early during qualifying, couldn’t get it down there. We turned it around there in the Call-Out final round. We came up just short of getting that win. We ran a 3.70. [Torrence] ran a 3.69. It was right there,” Force said. “We put a great amazing show on for the fans, so we were excited to do that but bummed that we lost. It’s tough to get beat that way, but overall, it was a good day. That was a good lap, and it qualifies us for the show Monday which, overall, is the most important thing. We want to compete on Monday, be in a good position and get the win.”
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK - ASHLEY JUMPS TO EARLY NO. 1 POSITION; CREW CHIEFS SHOULDER FRIDAY-NIGHT PRESSURE AT ‘BIG GO;’ FORCE CALLS OUT SALINAS FOR PEP BOYS BONUS EVENT; LAUGHLIN, LADIES CAN MAKE HISTORY
ASHLEY EARLY NO. 1 QUALIFIER – Justin Ashley joked that with 25 Top Fuel dragsters entered for the Dodge Power Brokers NHRA U.S. Nationals this weekend, his turn in the Friday qualifying session came “past my bedtime.”
Energized by a sponsorship-contract extension with Phillips Connect earlier in the day, Ashley was wide awake and on point with a 3.716-second pass on the Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park 1,000-foot course at 330.23 mph to claim the early qualifying lead in the first of five chances.
“You always want to come out hot and make a good run down the racetrack,” he said.
Ashley won one of four 2020 races here, with a rain-delayed showdown of the Lucas Oil Summernationals against T.J. Zizzo that played out during the U.S. Nationals. But he still hasn’t considered himself a winner here on this fabled dragstrip.
“Am I allowed to say I won at Indy? That counts?” he asked. Assured that he would be correct in saying that, Ashley recalled the day 15 years ago, in 2007, when his father, Mike Ashley, won the U.S. Nationals in the Funny Car class. And he thought ahead to a day when he could have a U.S. Nationals trophy of his own.
“I remember being at the top end and thinking to myself, ‘Wow, how cool would that be [to win here]? I was just in Jr. Dragsters,’” he said. “There’s two things you want to do as a driver. You want to win a championship, and you want to win Indy.”
He won here in just his ninth start. This will be his 49th.
But Ashley knows he hasn’t won yet. He’s only 20 percent of the way to a third victory of the season and a fifth overall. Two more qualifying sessions are on Saturday’s agenda – along with the Pep Boys All-Star Call-Out bonus event that Ashley will race among the Final Four. He’s set to face off with Steve Torrence, against whom he has met in five of the 15 previous races.
Two more qualifying sessions are scheduled for Sunday to set the fields for Monday’s eliminations.
FRIDAY-NIGHT LIGHTS BRING STRESS – Rob Wendland, the winning Top Fuel crew chief when Terry McMillen won the NHRA’s U.S. Nationals in 2018 and current tuner for Canadian dragster driver Dan Mercier, predicted this week that 3.738 seconds will be the minimum elapsed time (E.T.) to qualify for the Labor Day classic drag race.
Put in perspective, he’s anticipating the quickest field in Top Fuel history on the 1,000-foot course at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park. Right now, that distinction goes to the 2019 edition of this event, when Brittany Force led the dragsters with a 3.645-second E.T. and T.J. Zizzo anchored the field at 3.775.
One key to qualifying success is acing the Friday night session, when conditions usually are considered optimum. Even with five qualifying sessions – two more than at most events on the schedule – this is the one in which every racer wants to excel.
So Friday night qualifying at the U.S. Nationals, with header flames licking high into the night sky to the roar of 12,000-horsepower engines, feels like a bottom-of-the-ninth, two-outs, bases-loaded situation in baseball. It’s pressure-packed. The fans love it. However, the ones putting on the show can be a bundle of nerves.
But who deals with more pressure, the drivers or their crew chiefs?
“The crew chief, for sure,” Wendland said without hesitation. “The driver’s job is just to point it straight – point it straight and keep going. I want the driver to do the same thing every time. Our variables are huge. You’ve got to hit everything right to run in the .60s [the 3.6-second range]. And there’s 10 cars capable of running in the .60s.”
With 25 dragsters vying for a spot in this year’s 16-car field, that doesn’t leave much room for error.
Former driver Dave Grubnic is Brittany Force’s crew chief at John Force Racing. Together they have commandeered both the national and Indianapolis track E.T. and speed records (3.623 seconds, 338.17 mph nationally; 3.645, 334.57 at Indianapolis).
“I've been on both sides of the fence,” Grubnic said, “and I know on a Friday night, when we're qualifying, you still have pressure as a driver. I don't want to discount what our drivers do for us. They still have to stage it correctly. They have to keep it in the groove. There's a lot of elements that they have to make sure they get done right. But for us, it's sort of like, especially with the three-qualifier format that we've had, most of the time the fields are set on Friday night. So you have to balance pushing the limits of the racetrack with reaching your qualifying targets, where we'd like to qualify. So it can be a challenge, but it all depends how much risk we want to take.
“Then the pressure equals out on race day. The drivers then start feeling more pressure on race day,” he said.
Matt Hagan, three-time Funny Car champion and three-time U.S. Nationals victor, agreed. “Absolutely the crew chief,” the Tony Stewart Racing (TSR) driver said. “The variables they have to deal is unbelievable.
“There’s so much chatter in my ear every run all the way up until we start the car. Sometimes I want to unplug the radio. They’re changing stuff – tire pressure, wing height, how much alcohol to put in the car, how much primary, you name it . . . fuel flows, clutch flows. They’re constantly changing everything, and it changes as cloud cover comes in or as it gets cooler or as the tune-up changes. So much more pressure on a crew chief than a driver.
“I do want to unplug and focus on what I do. The things I want to talk to my assistant crew chief about are ‘Is it dragging people in [toward the center line] or is it pushing people out?’ and ‘Where are the bumps on the racetrack?’ and ‘Where are people coming loose?’ As a driver, you have a few things you have to key off of, but our job is pretty simple. There’s a lot going on that people don’t understand. They think you just jump in the car and hold the pedal down until the end and that’s it. But taking care of the clutch backing up [from the burnout] and how far you do the burnout, how far you’re out on the pedal, how much brake pressure, how you’re staging the car. There’s a lot of stuff you, as a driver, have to do and have to be consistent with that most people are nowhere close to being aware of. But the pressure really is more on the crew chief.”
His TSR teammate Leah Pruett, a Top Fuel title contender, said, “It depends how you look at it. I would say the crew chief. There’s nothing we can do to make the car go any quicker than it was designed to go and tuned to go in that moment. We can make it go slower by a multitude of things.” While that can provide a sense of relief for her, it also places weight on the shoulders of her crew chiefs, Neal Strausbaugh and Mike Domagala.
Brian Corradi, crew chief for Antron Brown’s Top Fuel operation, “I’m always going to say it’s the crew chief. I’d say it's me. Everything falls on me.” But he said he understands the driver also has pressure: “They’d better not screw up. The driver could screw it up in a heartbeat – people come before the tree comes on, and of course you’ve got to keep it in the groove, and on a night run, you’re pressing pretty hard. It’s your chance to get to the top of the page and put you in the position you need to be in for race day. Antron always has the pressure on him. He acts like he’s cool and calm, but he doesn’t want to screw up, either, because he has to deal with me, and I have to deal with him.”
Brown pondered the question before deciding, “I think the crew chiefs always have a little bit more pressure. They take it, because [of] the performance of the car.” Using football lingo, he said, “The crew chief is like the coach of the team. So they have the pressure of making sure everybody does their job. They have the pressure of everything happening around the car. The driver . . . I’m just getting the ball handed off to me. It’s up to run it down the track. The most pressure on a driver is first round of eliminations.”
So even busy drivers concede that the crew chiefs shoulder most of the pressure.
FORCE MAKES HER CHOICE – Saying that “looking at the line-up, there’s no good pick,” Monster Energy Dragster driver Brittany Force selected Scrappers Racing boss Mike Salinas as her semifinal opponent for Saturday’s continuation of the Pep Boys All-Star Call-Out bonus race.
The $80,000-to-win specialty event was rained out from its originally scheduled appearance, in March at Gainesville, Fla. The remaining four contestants were Force, Salinas, Steve Torrence, and Justin Ashley, with Force earning the right to pick her next opponent by virtue of the lowest elapsed time of the opening round.
Salinas, noting that the Final Four happen to be the top four rated drivers in the Camping World Drag Racing Series standings, said in reaction, “Brittany’s a tough match. If it’s your day tomorrow, it’s your day.”
Saturday’s Top Fuel qualifying sessions are set to run at 12:30 and 5 p.m., and the Pep Boys All-Star Call-Out is set for 2:40 and 6:25 p.m.
Force said the team decision to select Salinas was one that “changed weekend after weekend after weekend.”
That pairing leaves Torrence, in the Capco Contractors Dragster, and Ashley, in the Phillips Connect / Vita C Dragster, to vie for the other spot in the final.
“I’m really confident in the Capco Contractors Dragster team,” Brainerd Top Fuel winner Torrence said. “It wasn’t pretty last weekend, but we got it done, and that was a morale boost for me and my whole team. This is a fun deal. This is awesome. You can call out some people. You can have a good time. You can throw down in front of all of these fans. These track conditions look pretty bad-ass.
“I get to take on Justin. Neither one of us called anybody out. We’re just like the consolation racers right now. It’s going to be a good show. It’s going to be fun. And we’re racing for that Pep Boys money,” he said.
Ashley said, “I’ve raced Steve enough times to know when you race against him, nothing is easy. When you look at the four people left in this shootout, it’s tough. It’s going to be great racing. Just proud and excited to be racing here in front of these fans. It’s unbelievable. It’s the ‘Big Go’ for a reason.”
“It’s one of the biggest races, two races in one weekend,” Force said. “I've been coming here since I was a kid, and back then I remember standing in my dad's winners circle at the Big Bud Shootout, and it just had this presence. You knew it was just a huge race. There was so much built around it. You knew it was something special here at Indy. So that's what we're chasing now. That's what we're going after. We want to win here. Everyone wants to win.”
With the disappearance of the Big Bud Shootout, the Skoal Showdown, and the Traxxas Shootout, the Pep Boys All-Star Call-Out fills a void.
“It needs that extra something. Two races in one. It definitely was different last season when we didn't have it. So we're excited it’s back with Pep Boys,” Force said. “And it has a whole new mix to it, the Call Out. It's definitely different, calling out your opponent, but makes it exciting for the fans.
SHORT LIST COULD ADD LAUGHLIN – Antron Brown is one of just five racers to win this event in multiple professional classes. Kenny Bernstein, Jim Head, Ace McCulloch, and Don Prudhomme are the others. Brown won in Top Fuel in 2011 and in Pro Stock Motorcycle in 2000 and 2004. Alex Laughlin has a chance this weekend to become the sixth to do so.
Making only his 16th Top Fuel appearance, Laughlin is the 2019 Pro Stock winner. Should he qualify in the 16-car field and win the race Monday, he would be the first to score his “double” in Top Fuel and Pro Stock.
“Wow, that's pretty stout. I knew that it had to be a very short list,” the driver of Scott Palmer’s Power Built Dragster.
He said he actually had thought about the possibility of achieving the distinction.
“Gosh, honestly, aside from winning the race itself and everything that that comes with, trust me, I've thought about it,” Laughlin said. “And the long term is being able to walk through my living room and there being two US Nationals Wallys, side-by-side, one that says Pro Stock and one that says Top Fuel.”
And with the Palmer organization providing a quick car and reliable equipment, Laughlin said, “I'm not going to say we have as good of a chance to win as everybody else, but we have a lot better chance of winning than a lot of people. And I'm confident in our guys. I'm confident in our equipment. We have some of the best parts and equipment that money can buy, and we do good with what we've got, for sure.
“Just like in very normal instances on Sunday, it's going to take a little bit of luck, but it's also going to take the preparation and having all of your stuff together. When it really comes down to it, we've got everything completely top notch,” he said. “It's no secret that we are running on about, as far as a monetary example, we're about half of what the top teams are, based on what our budget is and what we are allotted to do. We do very well with what we have. Even the best drivers, the guys that win all the time, typically out of four rounds on Sunday, one of them was a freebie and a lot of times that's what it takes. And so between preparation and luck, you have to have your stars aligned to be able to get the job done.”
He said he thinks “it's a lot more of a level playing field this year than it has in the last decade entirely with everybody that's running their own teams now. And there hasn’t really been one person that has just dominated, as we've seen historically over the last few years.”
For the Granbury, Texas, racer, the fact he’s racing at this level is a victory in itself.
“I take it very seriously. I've worked my whole life to be here and never would I have ever thought that I'd be running the U.S. Nationals, for one, in anything, much less in the pinnacle of drag racing in Top Fuel,” he said.
“I'm not greedy with the wins, but my goal from year to year is to win at least one race a year,” Laughlin said. “And since making the move into Top Fuel and running Top Fuel on basically a Pro Stock budget still, we've obviously had to reduce the overall number of races that we’re able to run, which in turn makes the chances to win even less. But if there is one that I could win and if there's one that anybody could win, it's definitely the U.S. Nationals that they would choose.
“Anything can happen,” he said. “You look at somebody like Brittany Force back in Seattle . . . and I reference that one because that was the last race that I ran. But they were really struggling through qualifying, and they have the best people. They've got all of the resources that they need to be the best. And they almost either didn't get in or didn't qualify even in the top half. And there are things that happen like that. And so it's a situation that everybody has a little bit of a pit in their stomach about at some point going into Indy with that many cars on the list.
“The point is, things happen,” Laughlin said. “Unpredictable.”
WOMEN HAVE CHANCE TO MAKE MARK – Krista Baldwin, Brittany Force, and Leah Pruett have an opportunity to become only the second woman in 40 years to win the U.S. Nationals. Shirley Muldowney defeated Connie Kalitta in the Top Fuel final round of the 1982 race.
‘IMPOSSIBLE IS NOTHING’ – The Top Fuel victory in July at Denver buoyed Leah Pruett through the Western Swing and the lead-up to the Dodge Power Brokers U.S. Nationals. Perhaps even more, her reverence for the historic racetrack, which dates back to her youth, has put her in a confident frame of mind entering the longest weekend of the season.
“Something that stands out to me about Indy is that impossible is nothing,” she said. “When I was nine years old and I came to what was the NHRA Jr. Racing Nationals. I was from California, and I thought Indiana was like a whole different planet. I remember coming here and parking with my parents, getting ready for that Indy week, and just taking the dirt in my hand and just feeling it and just feeling the prestige of being in Indianapolis. And then from there, being able to race here a couple of times, of course. But for me, Indianapolis has always been to scale, and this is massive progression.”
Pruett, competing now with Tony Stewart Racing, has earned a spot in the U.S. Nationals. In 2018, she won the Factory Stock Showdown trophy.
“When I say Impossible is nothing’ . . . We won that race, and then we proceeded to win every single race in the rest of the season and win that championship. That's what this race stands for,” she said.
“From the cornerstone of performance in Funny Car and Pro Mod [a class in which she also has competed and won] and Top Fuel – in every single category – is that the teams rise to the occasion here and everything that we've been really running all year long and dialing in a performance package, Indy is where you settle on it. You don't settle on it in the Countdown; you settle it on it in Indy so that you can springboard into the Countdown,” Pruett said. “So, what you're going to see are people's top performances. You're going to see our top performance of everything, a culmination of what we've been learning.
“So when I say from when I was nine years old to now 34, and being able to win . . . When I was runner up in the U.S. Nationals in Top Fuel [in 2020], beating Antron Brown, beating Tony Schumacher on my way to get to that final, every single round, I felt like I had won the U.S. Nationals. So the success that I've had here, winning a team championship at Jrs. to Factory Stock Showdown, now to runner-up in Top Fuel. This is the year. My crew chief, Neil Strausbaugh, he has won the U.S. Nationals twice before. There's a number of crew members on my team that have won it. I won it in a different category, but we haven't won it together,” she said. “And this would be just as meaningful but maybe in a different direction than our Dodge Power Brokers win in Denver, because it is the U.S. Nationals.
“This is what everyone hangs their hat on,” she said, and told public-address announcer Alan Reinhart she can’t wait for him to introduce her as Leah Pruett, U.S. Nationals champion someday.
SCHUMACHER BITES BULLET – Last week was not Tony Schumacher’s week.
First he was bitten, figuratively, by a $20,000 fine and 50-point penalty for an alleged violation of the rules during the quarterfinals of the most recent race, at Brainerd, Minn. His Maynard-Schumacher team has appealed the decision – which would drop him from eighth in the standings to 10th and has Countdown to the Championship ramifications – and is awaiting a final verdict.
Then he was bitten, literally, by a black widow spider hiding in his motorcycle helmet, sending him to hospital at Austin, Texas.
The NHRA announced last Friday it was punishing Schumacher for “driving a vehicle that had two disabled safety systems” and for “bypassing a performance restriction device” during eliminations at Brainerd.
The points forfeiture would affect Countdown to the Championship seeding.
Schumacher said he isn’t worried about the final judgment, because the sanctioning body will erase point advantages gained through the first 16 races and separate the Countdown drivers in 10-point increments.
“They should fine me a million points. We’d get every news channel in the world: ‘One Team Loses A Million Points,’” he said. “What’s the difference? They take ’em away Monday, take ’em all away. Put me at 12th. I will win the championship if I’m supposed to. But I’d like to win it from the eighth spot, not the 10th.”
He said, “I understand. I don’t take anything to heart by it. I didn’t do anything wrong. I got in the car and drove it. I don’t believe what we did justifies what they did in any way, shape, or form. It’s why we went and appealed it.
“I don’t understand it, so you’d have to call anybody but me. I’m not the guy,” Schumacher said. “Here’s what I know: I know that I have seven seconds to stage the car after the other guy. I know you’re not supposed to swear on TV. I know you’re not supposed to punch someone at the finish line. I know that when it goes sideways not to hit the gas, because you’re going to hit something. I know simple things.”
Beyond that, Schumacher said, “I can’t talk about it until after you debate it. It’s under review. We’ll sit down and chat about it. We’ll see what they say. If they want to fine me, let ’em fine me. If they want to take points away, let ’em take points away. If they think I’m wrong, they’ll settle it that way. I never let the small stuff bother me. At the end of the day, I get to drive a race car.”
What’s more, he said, “Don’t even care how it turns out, to be honest. Just doesn’t matter.” However, he did say, “We’d like to have it done before we leave Indy.” He said that whatever happens, he will accept the ruling.
“So many great things happen all the time,” Schumacher said. “Every now and then you get some stupid stuff.”
He might not classify nasty bites on his forehead and neck from a black widow spider as “stupid stuff.” But it definitely was not a run-of-the-mill incident.
He rode his Ducati to a car show near his Austin, Texas, home. The motorcycle had no handlebars on which to hang his helmet, so he laid the helmet in the grass. When he slipped it back on, he said, “I thought fire ants were hammering me.”
A firefighter friend provided oxygen and rushed him to the hospital, and an epinephrine injection neutralized the venom. Based on the appearance of the bites, the doctor concluded the bites were from a black widow spider.
He sloughed off the adversity and showed up Friday here at Indianapolis ready to contend for his record-extending 11th U.S. Nationals trophy.
“Performance wise, Indy is my best race,” Schumacher said, “and we're coming off of three good, strong races. We're getting better every day, and I get to drive a race car, and that's what I love doing.
“Obviously, the situation with NHRA and the Brainerd race is not ideal, but we appealed it. We wrote a very good letter. We don't know where the points will be. We don't know if they'll take them all away. Obviously, you're definitely at an advantage starting [the Countdown] closer to the front of the pack. But I've come back from big deficits before, and I know we can do it again. Who finishes second, third, fourth, and fifth makes no difference to me. Who finishes No. 1 does. So, if those points make a difference at the end and it costs us a championship? I'll be hurt by it. But at the end of the day, the points, the championships, I can look back over 20 years and we've won eight championships, and we've lost a few, and every year, I enjoy driving the race car just as much,” he said.
“We’re back to running the JCM colors [of the Joe and Cathi Maynard principle side of the team ownership] this weekend, and we’re looking forward to giving that livery a good sendoff. We ran the JCM paint scheme when the Maynards sponsored our car, but now that they’re the team owners, we’ve decided to run it one last time here at Indy, and then that’ll be it. This race is very special to Joe and Cathi Maynard, and it’s especially significant because this will be Cathi’s first race back on tour after having to sit out since Charlotte. So we’d love nothing more than to win U.S. Nationals trophy No. 11 in the JCM colors. Let's make it a great show and let the points fall where they may.”
Schumacher has the NHRA record for most U.S. Nationals victories (10) and most Top Fuel trophies (86).
‘HANDY’ PROCK TURNING PASSION INTO PERFROMANCE GAINS – Austin Prock said he’s always learning.
And he discovered recently that “carbon fiber is pretty strong.”
It was stronger than his right hand.
Frustrated by a spate of engine explosions and first-round losses, Prock let his emotions get the better of him at Topeka, and he punched his Montana Brand / Rocky Mountain Twist Dragster.
“Yeah, we exploded an engine in qualifying and then did again first round and lost first round, as well. So just a little bit of emotion and adrenaline going and frustration all built up into a few seconds. And sometimes you just snap,” Prock said. “Everybody does it. It's human nature, and if you [say you] don't, you're lying.
“This sport definitely can wear on you sometimes. The stress can get to you,” he said, “And I'm essentially a rookie again. I'm still learning all this, [including] how to manage your mental state and keep your confidence high, especially when you're struggling. But a few good talks with my old man [Robert Hight’s crew chief, Jimmy Prock] and John Force and I’m back in shape. So, learning as I go.”
He said midweek that his hand – which isn’t broken – is “still a little sore. It's just a little swollen. I'm not in much pain. I still have full flexibility of it.” He said he’s “fine to drive this weekend. It's in much better shape after a week off. It didn't affect me any in Brainerd and definitely won't this weekend.”
Prock still builds all the supercharges on his dragster.
“I've been busy this off week,” he said. “We put two brand new ones together after our fiasco in Topeka, so got two more blowers ready to go, and I think we're going to have a good weekend. We need to, especially with how the point standings are. They're really tight, and we just have to go a round or two more than the people around us, so I think we're plenty capable of that. I'm going to be on my A game and do my absolute best like I always do, and I think the crew chiefs [Rahn Tobler and Joe Barlam] will, as well.
Prock, eager to build on his Rookie of the Year season, sat out all but the first two races in 2020 because team owner John Force parked the entire team because of pandemic-related issues and raced in only one event (as a substitute for Clay Millican) last year. However, he said, “I've never felt like a rookie. Even when I came out in 2019, I went out there and pedaled the race car to my first ever round win, my first ever round of competition, so I've never really felt like a rookie. But you're definitely a little more rusty after sitting out two years, and there's always something to learn in this sport, so when you stop learning, you might as well hang it up.”
Things are starting to turn around for Prock, and he indicated a surge is brewing.
“We started out the year so well and we were floating around fourth or fifth all season. Drag racing can turn in hurry, and we took a dive. So fell about eight positions and it's still so close back there that we just need to have one really good weekend and we'll be right back in the fight. And that'll pick everybody's morale up and get their mental energy back where they need to be and have a little more confidence and we'll be good to go.”
He recovered from his Topeka situation and said his team “definitely made huge gains in Brainerd. We made five runs in a row without hurting a single part. All the rod bearings and main bearings look really good, and I think we have a good baseline now that we can build off of, start pushing on. These race cars, the engine controls everything, and it's in direct correlation with the clutch application. And the clutch is king. So now that we have a consistent engine making good power, I think my crew chiefs will be able to manage the clutch much easier. And that's going to make our success rate more and hopefully be able to go some rounds that way.”