2022 NHRA VIRGINIA NATIONALS - RICHMOND NOTEBOOK
DON’T LET FORCE FOOL YOU – SHE’S UNCOMPROMISING BEHIND WHEEL OF HER DRAGSTER - She seems like such a nice young woman, having studied to become a teacher and all.
And she has that big, famous Force smile.
But under that helmet and under that Top Fuel canopy on her Flav-R-Pac Dragster, Brittany Force can be merciless.
She was this weekend – all weekend long – at the NHRA Virginia Nationals at Virginia Motorsports Park, south of Richmond.
She wasn’t about to let teammate Austin Prock outshine her in qualifying. He set the track record early Saturday at 3.672 second, eclipsing her 3.710-second mark from Friday. But she reclaimed it minutes later with a 3.669. And just to put an exclamation point on her achievement, she lowered her own elapsed-time record to 3.654 seconds in blazing to her 34th No. 1 starting position.
Oh, and while she was at it, she added the track speed record, just to show everyone who’s the boss right now in the Top Fuel class.
But why stop there? The points leader had a bye run as eliminations opened Sunday, then dismissed Shawn Langdon and two-time 2022 winner Mike Salinas before taking on – and disappointing – four-time and current champion Steve Torrence in a monster match-up.
Force claimed her category-best third victory in the past four races, leaving Torrence winless after seven races for the first time since 2017. And in earning her 14th overall triumph by 15-thousandths of a second, she sent a clear message to her competition.
“This has been our greatest season yet, to come on this strong with this many wins” Force said after clinching John Force Racing’s fifth double-nitro sweep and first since last August 15 at Topeka. She shared the winners circle with Funny Car’s Robert Hight, as well as with Pro Stock Motorcycle victor Matt Smith.
“The first round [on a bye run] we blew the tires off the thing,” she said, referring to her Flav-R-Pac Dragster. “It’s hard to get confident after a run like that, when there’s heat all day. We just kept stepping up our runs. This Wally [trophy] is for [crew chief] Dave Grubnic, because he makes the impossible happen.”
Force and Company navigated the hot, slippery, truly tricky 1,000-foot course and capped her day by defeating Torrence with a 3.770-second, 334.07-mph performance to his 3.781, 326.24.
Torrence had beaten Scott Palmer, Tony Schumacher, and Prock to reach his second final round of the year.
Force, of Yorba Linda, Calif., said her first victory at this East Coast dragstrip was special: “We’ve never won here in Virginia, so it was very cool to get this win. Any win is special, but to qualify No. 1, set the track record, and then get the win, it’s great. Robert and I seem to have a lot of luck together, and it was great to see him win. Our whole team has come a long way, and we’re already ahead of ourselves from last year.”
Torrence, driver of the Capco Contractors Dragster, said pocketing that first victory of the season – after most of his 51 victories have come with striking regularity in the past five years – would have been “a big morale boost for us. We’ve been struggling. Everybody knows it. The car’s running well, and we’re still in the top three or four in points. So it’s not that bad of a struggle. But it’s definitely something we’re not as accustomed to as going out there and winning races consistently. These Capco Boys have stuck with it. Everybody’s kept a good attitude. That’s what it’s all about, because these things are Top Fuel cars. They’ll make you look like a hero one day and a zero the next.”
His car chief, Bobby Lagana, said, “This is not a struggle. Bad things that happen in life are real struggles. We’re here drag racing. Everybody’s got somebody who’s sick or just having a tough time. Just pick ’em up. This is drag racing. Life is tough. This is fun.”
Force won in April as she and Torrence finished 1-2 in the final quad at the Las Vegas four-wide event. But in two-wide format, Force hadn’t defeated Torrence in a final-round match-up since Sept. 24, 2017, at Reading, Pa. Susan Wade
HIGHT GETS BEST OF HAGAN AT VIRGINIA NATIONALS - There are plenty of cheesy sayings about not giving up.
If at first you don’t succeed. When the going gets tough. Winners never quit.
Of course, when three-time Funny Car world champion Robert Hight finds himself behind the eight ball, he has his own mantra to help him make it through a tough race weekend - when you have Jimmy Prock in your corner, you are never truly out of it.
After struggling during the opening two days of the Virginia NHRA Nationals, Hight and his team dug deep and found a new level of performance as Hight battled through a tough field of Funny Car competitors to collect a class-leading third win of the season Sunday at Virginia Motorsports Park.
“What a difference a day makes,” Hight said. “I’ve said it a million times, your first run of the weekend is the most important. We had a mechanical failure our first run and it set us behind the entire weekend. But when you have this Auto Club group like I do, this core team that has been with me for a lot of years, and you have Jimmy Prock and Chris Cunningham, you just believe in them. You believe the next run is going to be low ET, they’ve got it fixed and we are on our way. And that is exactly what happened today.”
Coming into race day looking up from the bottom half of the ladder in 10th, Hight navigated a tricky track and an even trickier lineup on his way to a much-anticipated final round against top qualifier Matt Hagan. While Hagan proved the quickest during the first two days of competition, Hight and his John Force Racing team flexed their muscle when it mattered most with a race-winning 3.907-second pass at 328.86 mph in the final round. With the win, Hight climbed to within a handful of points of his rival for the Funny Car championship lead and picked up the 56th victory of his career behind the wheel of his Auto Club of Southern California Chevrolet Camaro.
Hagan crossed the stripe in the runner-up position with a 3.948 at 327.59 mph in his Smithfield/Tony Stewart Racing Dodge.
Already this season Hagan and Hight have tussled multiple times on the race track as the top two drivers in NHRA points continue to trade blows.
“We’ve had a few battles already this year with Hagan. It is just going to happen every week I think. We honestly have the two best cars and when you race those guys you better be up for it,” Hight said. “They were better than us in qualifying and they were the car to beat. This was a tricky track for a lot of people because in qualifying it was very cool every run and today that was not the case. We had a hot race track and my team navigated and dealt with it better than everybody else. We just have to keep winning these little battles. At the end, that is when you win the war.”
In the first trip to Virginia Motorsports Park since 2019, wet weather and varying temperatures left many of the teams scrambling throughout the weekend. On Sunday, hot and steamy conditions led to a number of cars in other categories, mainly Top Fuel, struggling to make it down the track. As Hight watched his peers go up in smoke during the first round of eliminations, he knew he needed to keep his cool when it was his turn to survive and advance.
“It was worse for me because I was the seventh pair. I had a lot of cars to listen to and pay attention to,” Hight said. “Truthfully, if you focus on having to pedal this thing, do you know what is going to happen next? You are going to be late on the tree. You’ve got to take it one step at a time. You’ve got to leave the starting line and then react. Whatever the car throws at you you have to react and do your best.”
That point was made all the more clear in a first round matchup with Tim Wilkerson. The pair produced a great opening round tilt, producing the lowest and third lowest elapsed times of the round, with Hight advancing on a 3.919 at 329.83 mph. Wilkerson had a 3.942, 325.92 mph in the losing effort.
“You have to be up for every round. The competition in this class is unlike anything there has ever been. Racing Tim Wilkerson in the first round, that guy is lethal. He is a great driver with a great car. When you are seeing cars smoking the tires it makes you nervous, but if you back it off too much he’s got you. There is nothing on the other side of that line I can control. I can only control my car and my team. That is how Jimmy races. He doesn’t push extra hard because he is racing Dickie or anyone. If we keep that mentality we are going to have a lot of wins.”
Hight added wins over a tire-smoking Ron Capps in round two and dispatched Bob Tasca in the semifinals with a 3.906 to Tasca’s 4.015.
Hagan had wins over Chad Green and John Force to reach his fifth final round of the year.
With the pair of Funny Car competitors now owning five of the season’s seven Wally trophies, it appears that favorites have already been established in the class with 15 races still to go.
“When you race Hagan you have to be on your game,” Hight said. “We are going to have a lot of these battles throughout the year. It is only a few points separating us, hopefully we go to Epping and get this points lead back.” Larry Crum
MATT SMITH COLLECTS FIRST WIN ATOP SUZUKI AT VMP - Matt Smith has won a lot of races. He has collected a lot of poles.
Until Sunday, however, none of those career marks had taken place atop a Suzuki.
With wins and championships aboard nearly all of the top motorcycle brands, Sunday marked the first time in his illustrious career Smith visited victory lane with a Suzuki, driving his Denso Auto Parts bike to a big win over Steve Johnson at the Virginia NHRA Nationals at Virginia Motorsports Park.
“I haven’t been this excited to win a race in a very, very long time,” Smith said. “It wasn’t because it was Steve Johnson in the other lane. It is because of the bike that I am on right now. Everybody said I couldn’t go back to Suzuki, I would not win on a Suzuki. We are just out here to prove everybody wrong.”
In a race in which Smith qualified fourth and his wife, Angie, took the pole, the defending class champion went four big rounds ending in an epic showdown with longtime Pro Stock Motorcycle rival Steve Johnson in the final round.
Admitting he was down on power against the two-time race winner in 2022, Smith entered into a bit of gamesmanship against the current points leader. He delayed starting his bike prior to the run to force his opponent to fire first, and then continued the games at the starting line when he lit both of the staging bulbs before his opponent, visibly rattling Johnson.
Forced to play catchup, Johnson was late on the tree as Smith used a starting line advantage to win on a holeshot with a 6.842-second pass at 198.35 mph. Johnson crossed the stripe just behind with a quicker 6.786 at 198.06 mph to take the runner-up position.
“Steve has been out here a long time and everybody knows what he likes to do. He likes to stage first. He likes to start (his bike) last. I made it a point that since he had the better bike, I had nothing to lose,” Smith said. “If they kicked us both out because we don’t want to start our bikes, I’ve already got second, I wasn’t going to worry about it so I made him start his bike first. And I was right there at the beam when I got (the bike) straight and I knew he loves to stage first, so I knew I had to roll it in about 10 inches and that is what I did. I double-bulbed him and I think that threw his game off.”
Sunday’s win was the 33rd of Smith’s career as the five-time champion moved into a tie for fifth on the all-time Pro Stock Motorcycle win list with the late John Myers.
Smith added round wins over Chris Bostick, Jim Underdahl and Eddie Krawiec to reach his second final round of the season. Impressively, in those three round wins Smith was behind on the tree in all three, using bracket-like passes of 6.871, 6.860 and 6.868 to advance to the final round in the fourth race of the season in the category.
Johnson had wins over Lance Bonham, Karen Stoffer and Marc Ingwersen to reach his third final in four races. Still, despite the loss, Johnson continued to flex his power as one of only two drivers to dip into the 6.7-second zone on race day.
After the race, Smith reflected on the rivalry that has been budding between the two competitors stemming back to a comment he made referring to Johnson as a “hobby racer” a few years prior.
“Everybody wants to win, but I do this for a living. I get paid by my sponsors to win races. I don’t have another job. If I don’t perform and I lose my sponsors, then I have to go drive a truck and then I become a hobby racer,” Smith said. “I am out here to be a professional and that is the way that I explain it and that is what I meant. It wasn’t a slam on him. It wasn’t a slam on the class. He took it to another level and he got a lot of attention for it. Good for him. It is a good rivalry right now.
“You always need rivalries out here. It makes the sport better. We are all professionals here, we all have sponsors, you just can’t cross the line and call people names. We can have rivalries, we just need to be professional about everything. With our sponsors, I represent all of them up here, so does my wife. We cannot go out there and call people names and be ugly about stuff like that. We get paid money to win races and that is what I am trying to do.”
Smith went on to note that, while Johnson is running strong now, there are plenty of other drivers in the class to watch, including other budding rivalries that might one day strengthen the class.
“I’m glad to have a rivalry with him, but there are other people we can have rivalries with,” Smith said. “Angelle (Sampey) is fast. Eddie (Krawiec) is coming on. Jimmy (Underdahl) is going to be fast, he is already showing he is fast. I’m just excited to be a part of this program.”
For Smith, he continued to talk about what winning his first race on a Suzuki means to him and his team as he has now won on four different bike brands in his career.
“This has been a goal of mine. I went to four or five finals on a Suzuki early in my career and I never could close the deal,” Smith said. “Then the V-Twins came along. I’ve won on a Buell. I’ve won on an EBR. I’ve won on a Victory. Now I’ve won on a Suzuki. There is only one more brand I can win on and I’ve never got invited to race one of those. I’m truly blessed being able to do what we’ve done. We’ve brought this Suzuki program pretty quickly to the forefront already.
“This is huge. Angie got No. 1 qualifier. Our team did its homework after Charlotte and stayed over and tested. I made eight laps on Monday and we got it closer. We are still not where we need to be yet, but we are closer. I got the little Wally at Charlotte, she got the yellow hat here for the No. 1 qualifier and we got the blue hat for winning the race. All-in-all it was a great weekend.”
While Smith now moves into the top five all-time in class wins and continues to be successful as a self-perceived underdog, he couldn’t help but to take a moment and reflect on his humble beginnings to where he is today as a multi-time champion and a winner with a fourth different motorcycle brand.
“I want people to look back at me and know I was a part of this class,” Smith said. “When me and Mark Stockseth started this program in 2007, we never thought we would win a championship. We just wanted to go out and win a race or two. Now, to have 33 of them and five championships, I’m blessed. I come from a hard working family. We don’t have a lot of money. It takes sponsorship to make this work. We make our stuff look good on TV and make our pit area look good, but in the grand scheme of things we are one of the lower budget teams out here. Angie and I, we work 24/7 in that shop and it shows because we run well.” Larry Crum
RACERS DEAL WITH SPECTRUM OF WEATHER EXTREMES, PALMER RECONNECTS WITH SPECIAL MENTOR, ODDS THAT TONY STEWART WILL DRIVE FUNNY CAR START WITH ‘Z’ AND END WITH ‘O’
Finally, the sunshine burst out from behind the rain clouds that had racers and fans at Virginia Motorsports Park wondering how a second day of showers would affect the first Virginia Nationals since 2019. And then the sun became a problem, too.
It showed up just in time Saturday to shine right square in the drivers’ eyes. Some barged ahead, making the best of it. However, a couple of delays during the final Funny Car qualifying session – along with another one because of a technical glitch with the starting-line beams – were things the drivers shrugged off but annoyed crew chiefs.
Capco Dragster driver Steve Torrence said, “I have a blocker on my visor that I’m able to tip down and try to block the sun out. You just go with it. Sometimes in those situations, you wear a clear visor, because it’s a little easier to see the Tree.”
Brittany Force said having the sun in her eyes was just one of the problems she had to contend with as she prepared for her final qualifying pass.
“We had a wholes mess of problems pulling up there,” the Flav-R-Pac Dragster driver said. “We couldn’t get the car in reverse. Took us a little while, and we didn’t want to hold up the team next to us.”
As for the glaring sunshine, Force said, “When we came around the corner in the staging lanes, that sun . . . We have a canopy that sometimes can block the sun. Sometimes the helmet – the sticker across the top – can block it. But it was right in my eyes. There was nothing we could do at that point. Can’t put another visor on. So pull forward and go with it. And we pulled it off and put a great number on the board.”
It was a track-record 3.654-second elapsed time that eclipsed the one she had set Friday in the opening day of qualifying at Virginia Motorsports Park and erased the mark Austin Prock owned for just a moment at 3.672 in qualifying second to his John Force Racing teammate. (She dominated the field Friday with a 3.710-second run.)
So the inconvenience was merely that – for Force. But a few crew chiefs were concerned that the “sun delays” would ruin their tune-ups.
“These things are sensitive to the weather: the ambient temperature, the humidity,” a clearly upset Dean “Guido” Antonelli, Ron Capps’ tuner for the NAPA Auto Care Toyota Supra, said after huddling with fellow crew chief John Collins (Cruz Pedregon Racing) and team owner/tuner Jim Head. “In an hour, the [water] grains and temps can change so much they’ll be out of tune-up.”
Despite the wait, Capps earned the No. 2 starting spot in the 15-entrant Funny Car field.
“Just an unbelievable job,” Capps said of his team effort. “We were fighting weather a little bit here, and you know, there are things you can count on in life. This Toyota GR Supra is such a great car to drive. And to have Guido and our NAPA team with no pressure, it seemed, on them and that really calmed me as a driver. But to go out there and fire a shot like that, it’s not like we just threw something at the dartboard. Guido is good about being consistent. Team Toyota and Team NAPA, this is just a fun car to drive right now.”
An along the way, Top Fuel driver Leah Pruett offered some enlightening insight.
The Mobil 1 Dragster driver said, “Anyone who has boating, sailing, or surfing, you know when you’re on the waves, you put your hand up and for every finger length there is between the horizon and the sun, that’s 15 minutes.”
LET THE MEMORIES FLOW - One look is all it took for the memories to flow for Scott Palmer.
The Top Fuel veteran Palmer looked over at the ropes at the edge of the pits Friday at the NHRA Virginia Nationals outside of Richmond, Va., and there stood a gentleman he credits for helping him make it in the rough-and-tumble world of Top Fuel.
Larry Frazier, whose tuning résumé includes 16-time NHRA champion John Force and Doug Herbert, also helped a wet-behind-the-ears Palmer get his feet on the ground with the kings of the sport.
Palmer smiled when he recalled Frazier’s first bit of sage advice, which had nothing to do with nitro percentages or tune-ups.
"I'll tell you the first words he ever told me," Palmer said. "He walked in my pits at Chicago, my second Top Fuel race ever. And his advice to me was, because I came from Top Alcohol racing, 'Be careful out here. You don't have any friends out here, only acquaintances.’"
Essentially, there was no "Hi,” “Hello,” or “What's up?"
Palmer said, "That was his first sentence out of his mouth, 'because out here, it's pretty cutthroat. If you have a sponsor deal on your car, you got to watch out, because the sharks will be circling. That's just the way it goes out here. It's a big-money game.’”
Frazier went on to say, "If you're a little team with a sponsor on your car . . . and the big teams, they have more to offer your sponsors.’
Palmer said, "He was just telling me. We had O'Reilly Auto Parts on the car, and he was right. It was a tough deal. Luckily, I'm friends with the O'Reilly family, or probably O'Reilly wouldn't have been on there long."
Frazier had done his homework on Palmer, and when he walked into the pits that time, it wasn't the first time he'd introduced himself. Actually, Frazier had called Palmer ahead of the event, but Palmer figured it was just a prank call.
"I thought it was one of my buddies giving me a hard time," Palmer said. "It was me and Spencer Massey on the road, and we just laughed about it. We thought one of our friends was playing a joke on us. When we showed up in Chicago, Larry came to the back of our trailer, and that's when I realized, 'Oh man.’"
From this point, Palmer said he became a sponge for Frazier's advice.
"There was never a dull moment," Palmer said. "If you look at him today, he's still got his gold chains and gold rings on, and he was a first-class guy, and everybody knew when he walked in the door."
Frazier knew Palmer's resources were limited and still wanted to help the aspiring drag racer.
"The problem he had with us is we didn't have a lot to work with," Palmer said. "We didn't know anything about Top Fuel racing. When he came along, he taught us a lot. He was aggressive. We were pretty conservative. I just walked up over there, and he said, 'You need to get that car running better.’
"And I asked, ‘What would you do?’ Then I said, ‘Don't. Let me guess. Four more degrees timing, 20 grams of weight, and speed the clutch up?’ He said, 'Yeah, more compression.’
"He was just used to running at the top with Kalitta, and he's been with so many big teams and had lots of success," Palmer said.
Palmer said he quickly realized there was a fine between being conservative and aggressive.
"His deal was always, we'd go up Friday night, whether you have any parts in the trailer or not. And we would ask, 'Hey Frazier, what are we going to do this run?’
"He said, 'We're going to fire one at them."
If it blew up?
"He'd say, 'Fix it. Let's get back at it. Get to work,’" Palmer said.
Years after Frazier retired, Palmer said their weekly conversations haven't changed much.
"They're the same," Palmer said. [Drag racing's] all he thinks about. He loves racing. When I call him, he answers me and asks, 'What do you want, Palmer?’
"He's just a good man. He's a hard ass, but he's a good man. Anytime I see him these days is just awesome." – Bobby Bennett
SKEWED – BUT TRUE – STAT – Well, Steve Torrence’s performance advantage at Virginia Motorsports Park might need an asterisk, but just the same, he has not lost a round of racing at this venue since Oct. 15, 2006.
Here’s the catch . . . He didn’t compete in 2007, 2008, or 2009. The race was canceled in each of the past two seasons COVID-19 pandemic. And VMP was off the tour from 2010-2017. Just the same, that statistic is true: Since he formed his own team in 2012, the 51-time Top Fuel winner hasn’t lost a single round of racing at VMP. Moreover, his Capco Contractors that Richard Hogan and Bobby Lagana head is virtually the same one that sent him to the winners circle in back-to-back seasons (2018, 2019).
“We’ve definitely had success,” Torrence said of his results here, “but we’ve had success everywhere at one time or another. There’s no real advantage [from the earlier victories]. That was three and four years ago. The track changed in that time, and so have the cars.” He said beforehand that he imagined “it’ll probably be kind of a crapshoot.”
Now, because he and his team are experimenting with a few ideas for improving an already formidable dragster, Torrence is winless through six races on the 2022 Camping World Drag Racing Series schedule – for the first time since 2019.
“We’re just going through some stuff right now with a new set-up and we’re not quite on top of it. But I wouldn’t go and start counting these Capco Boys out. There’s a lot of racing before we even get to the Countdown.”
He’s in a strong position to record that first victory of the season Sunday. He’s starting third in the order, just .011 of a second slower than No. 2 Austin Prock. His first opponent is longtime friend Scott Palmer, whose Capco crew helped become established in NHRA competition.
“I’m here to kick everybody’s butt and leave with the trophy,” Torrence said. “We haven’t done it yet, but we know we can do it. So we’re going to try.”
TWO TOP FUNNY CAR TEAMS STRUGGLE – Surprisingly, a pair of top-10 Funny Car drivers have all weekend so far and are looking for a turnaround Sunday. Robert Hight, the No. 2-ranked racer in the standings who was hoping to close his 22-point deficit on leader Matt Hagan, said he wasn’t worried because he has Jimmy Prock and Chris Cunningham making tuning calls on his car. However, Hight said after qualifying, “We’ve got to get some things fixed. The first run [Friday] was mechanical failure. And the second run, we were just behind, and it shook. That run there, it had a cylinder out. I’ve gone into race day with a lot of runs like that.”
Meanwhile, Bob Tasca III was unable to get down the racetrack under full power all weekend, either.
“We ‘re going to have to throw away everything we did this weekend and just go back to [previous] data,” the Motorcraft / Quick Lane Ford Mustang owner-driver said.
“We’ve struggled here with track conditions, a little bit with us, but it’ll be a lot different tomorrow,” he said. “I think it’ll be warmer, and we have a lot of data on a warm track. [With co-crew chiefs] Mike Neff and Jon Schaffer, and these guys, I’m not worried about that. We would have liked to have made a nice run, but with the sun in my eyes, we went so slow it doesn’t matter. We’re going to have to pick up the pace come Sunday.”
If he were to grade his year-to-date performance, Tasca was a harsh grader: “I’d give us a C-minus right now – but an A for effort. We tested in Charlotte. We made some incredible runs on Monday. We’ve just got to put it together on Sunday. I’m not sweatin’. Last year we started off strong and we ended with a thud. This year we’re going to start out a little slower and end up with the [championship] trophy. So we’ll see.”
NAH, I'M FINE – Tony Stewart is not the kind of guy who gets intimidated by challenges in racing. But when it comes to fuel Funny Car racing, all bets are off.
"I have zero desire to do that," Stewart said of driving a Funny Car in an upcoming interview with CompetitionPlus.com. "I sat in [Matt Hagan's Funny Car] and steered it up to the staging lane; I said, 'Yep. I'm never driving one of these. No way."
"I don't want anything to do with it. Hagan is wearing me out about doing it. He goes, ‘Ah, just make a hit in it.’ He goes, ‘You won't want to run that dragster anymore.’
"I said, 'No way, no way.’
"So I think the Funny Car guys are crazy. I'm a tad bit claustrophobic, but man, the Top Fuel car, if it blows up, you're going away from it. Funny Car blows up; you're going right into it. And I've seen enough. I've seen enough in my time here, and I've seen enough watching NHRA events over the years, to know that when the Funny Cars go wrong, the driver has a lot of extra work to do that he or she was not anticipating having to do on that run." – Bobby Bennett
AUSTIN PROCK STOKED FOR RACE DAY – Right off the trailer, Austin Prock knew this was going to be a feel-good weekend for himself and his Montana Brand / Rocky Mountain Twist Dragster team. And he was right.
Rahn Tobler tuned the car to a 3.672-second elapsed time that at least for a moment or two outshone John Force Racing teammate Brittany Force, the Queen of Qualifying.
Prock will start eliminations Sunday from the No. 2 position and against Lex Joon. But he already is licking his chops at the possibility of facing Force, the points leader, in the final round.
“It's been a great weekend in Richmond so far,” Prock said. “This Montana Brand / Rocky Mountain Twist team is really coming along nice. I watched the team service, and they look like a well-oiled machine. The crew chiefs have that confidence in their eyes. I'm excited for tomorrow. We ran a career-best this afternoon. It was an impressive run. To top it off, the JFR dragsters are sitting No. 1 and 2 rolling into Sunday, giving us a chance to meet in the finals.”
MILLICAN PARTNER WALMART BRINGS MEDICAL OUTPOST TO RACETRACK, CREASY REVELS IN TENTATIVE NO. 2 SHOWING, BILLY TORRENCE SITTING OUT THIS RACE, SALINAS FAMILY BACK IN ACTION, SEVERAL RACERS GETTING FIRST LOOKS AT VMP AS PROS
TROUBLE HEARING OR SEEING? – Walmart once again has partnered with Top Fuel driver Clay Millican – for the health of it.
And the retail giant is offering fans at Virginia Motorsports Park the chance to get a free hearing, vision, and overall exam during this weekend’s NHRA Virginia Nationals.
“We have continued from last year. We've never not been behind the scenes, kind of working with them. They’re back on the car this weekend, and they have their health and wellness center here, which is pretty cool,” Millican said.
“It's free of charge. People can come up – they can get hearing test, vision test, and just kind of an overall check-up. And it's pretty neat Walmart does that. It's really cool that a company like that, that's that big, does this free of charge,” he said. “And they care about our drag-race fans, obviously, because we did those races with them last year and hope to continue to do them more.”
Millican said, “It's funny, sitting here thinking about what they're doing here. I'm definitely all caught up on my hearing because of what happened at Norwalk last year with my ears.”
Last summer, Millican was concerned during Friday qualifying at Norwalk that something “just didn’t feel right” with his sense of balance. It turned out to be an inner-ear infection, but he withdrew from that event and the team put then-idle Austin Prock in the seat of the Parts Plus Dragster for the remainder of the weekend. Millican said he made the decision out of an abundance of caution.
“What I did was for the betterment of the sport,” he said last year. “The last thing I’d ever want to do is go out there and have a problem and get hurt or hurt someone else. It’s funny, because I’ve driven with broken bones. I’ve driven with stitches. I even drove once with an IV bag attached to me because I was dehydrated.”
So now he has a dual purpose for being at Virginia Motorsports Park this weekend.
“Yeah, I'm hoping to bring a little health to the dragstrip and have a lot of fans just go over there for free,” Millican said. “And all of us guys, we hate going to the doctor. Well, this is a little different – you're at the racetrack. We love going to the racetrack. So you might as well kind of go get a checkup while you're doing something you love doing.”
He said he’s amazed at how his friends from Walmart are using the Camping World Drag Racing Series platform to promote sound health: “It's funny that's what they're here doing, checking ears and that sort of thing. But Dr. Top Fuel? Yeah, probably not.”
CREASY THRILLED TO BE NO. 2 IN PROVISIONAL LINEUP – Dale Creasy wasn’t the first one down the track in the rain-delayed Funny Car session Friday. Phil Burkart went first.
So Creasy said he was a little surprised to hear public-address announcer Alan Reinhart keep saying that he was No. 1 qualifier all the way until the last pairing. Creasy’s 3.914-second, 319.07-mph performance led the field until Matt Hagan blazed at a track speed record (335.82 mph) to the quickest elapsed time (3.914 seconds).
And it happened on a day that many thought would be rained out.
“Yeah, it makes for a long day,” he said. “And I know NHRA does the best it can. And in my opinion, when they have to do such a good track prep, then it's going to be as good as it can get. And it kind of showed out there, because there was a lot of tire shake. So we just went up there trying to run high [3.]90 and then ran a little better than we expected.
“So we'll just see if we can keep repeating. It's a new area for us, where we were a [3.]40 car, and now we're trying to step up. And we don't want to step too hard, because then it'll start breaking stuff. So right now I'm very happy with the way we did. My crew did a wonderful job, and I actually kept it straight,” he said.
He wasn’t sure, exactly, but he guessed that this was his best spot in the order at the end of any session.
“I'm going to have to say yes. I've only heard my name said No. 1 qualifier when I got out of the car down there and nobody ran yet,” Creasy said. “So I didn't figure it was going to stay. I figured it'd be three or four more anyway, but to end up No. 2 qualifier, I couldn't be more proud of my guys, Tek Pak, and everybody that helps us.”
Because it has been more than a decade since he has raced at Virginia Motorsports Park and it was on a different surface back then, Creasy said he relied a lot of help from Danny Hood and John Force Racing.
“So we don't struggle with that as much as somebody that was doing it by [himself],: he said. “So the weather's hot because the barometer's so good and the grains are so high and the humidity's so high and it's cool. So, it was one of them ‘Let's just try this.’ And it was a little hot on one side, so we'll do some fixing on it and get it ready for Sunday.”
About 15 years ago – in 2008 – Creasy suffered a serious leg injuries during an IHRA race at Edmonton – broken bones in his right foot and a crushed left shinbone and a compound fracture, all of which required more than a dozen surgeries. A catastrophic parts failure in the driveline triggered the accident, and his legs became tangled in the wreckage. On the road to recovery, he raced at Virginia Motorsports Park.
“It [the crash] was '08, and then the next year we came here, because we switched to the swing pedal on the clutch and that's how I remember it so well. And it was a good track then, but I think it's better now,” Creasy said. “I think the track is just . . . I don't know if I've ever driven on a track that's that smooth. There was nothing - no wiggles, no nothing. I was impressed with the job NHRA I did and just [as] happy with our guys.”
This wasn’t the first venue he raced at in his return to drag racing, “but it was that year. I came back almost a year to the day back to the track it happened at because I had to overcome that fear. And once I did that, we started racing again. And we came here because it was on the schedule where we could fit it in between our IHRA stuff, and I was happy we came, because we learned stuff every time we hit the gas.
“We went back to Edmonton for our first match race after I got hurt. We actually went to Salt Lake City, did a match race, and straight up to Edmonton, did a match race. And that got it out of my system because it was just . . . I wasn't afraid of it,” he said. “It's just, now you're a little more apprehensive after you're get hurt that bad.
“And once I hit the gas and all the safety stuff we do, we never fudge on any of that stuff. So a part just broke and it wasn't because we ran it too long or something was wrong with it. But now we have the tunnel, which would've prevented what happened to me. And unfortunately, it took me getting hurt for that to be a rule. But God bless everybody else now because you don't have to go through that,” Creasy said.
He supposed he hasn’t changed much as a person as a result of his recovery from such painful and complex injuries: “I think just getting older. I want to say I'm getting smarter, but nobody would agree with that. But you get more methodical. You start thinking about things more, especially when something like that happens. We change studs 50-percent quicker than we would've before, just because. It's probably never going to happen again. It was a fluke thing, but we're not taking any chances for $1000 worth stuff, for what it cost. So if it means I have to go to one less race to be safer, then that's what it's going to be.”
Maybe all that’s too much thinking. All he is certain of tonight is that at least for a few hours he’s No. 2 out of the 15 entrants that made passes Friday. (John Smith did not run.) That alone was worth savoring. And how did he plan to celebrate?
“I'm not sure,” Creasy said. “I think we might start with a beer, though.”
WHERE HAVE YOU GONE, CHARMING BILLY? – Billy Torrence will have to wait a little longer to go for his 100th elimination round-win.
Just a day before the NHRA Virginia Nationals opened at Dinwiddie, just south of Richmond, the family-owned Capco Contractors Top Fuel team from Kilgore, Texas, announced it wouldn’t field a second dragster this weekend, as originally planned.
The announcement cited “the lack of sufficient racing resources to support a two-car effort.” Steve Torrence is racing at Virginia Motorsports Park, where he won in 2018 and 2019. But father Billy Torrence will be home, tending to his international oil and gas pipeline construction business.
Billy Torrence never has raced a full season since he entered Top Fuel competition. But in the six completed events this year, he appeared in just two (at Gainesville, Fla., and Houston). The team said his business obligations, along with “the logistical challenges of assembling the parts, pieces, and personnel needed to race at an elite level on a part-time basis,” are the reasons.
Billy Torrence has eight victories and three top-five finishes in the year-end standings and has qualified for all 75 races he has entered. Moreover, he has proven it’s possible to qualify for the Countdown to the Championship without participating in every race in the so-called regular season.
At the Houston race, Torrence competed in the Super Comp class, as well. But it’s uncertain when he’ll rejoin the Camping World Drag Racing Series in either category.
THAT’S MRS. EVARISTO TO YOU – Mike Salinas has lots of labels: San Jose, Calif. businessman, two-time 2022 Top Fuel winner, Jr. Dragster sponsor for more than a dozen youngsters, grandfather-to-be, and most recently father-in-law.
His Pro Stock Motorcycle-racing daughter Jianna married in April and is known now as Jianna Evaristo.
She is returning to the dragstrip on her Scrappers Racing Suzuki this weekend for the first time this campaign, recovered from injuries she suffered in a late-January accident during preseason testing at Bradenton, Fla. She said the front fork tubes of her bike broke as she approached the finish line. The high-speed crash, considered a freak accident, left her with head-to-toe bruises and road rash but no broken bones.
“She flew over the handlebars at 170 miles an hour,” her dad said. “Just a bad deal. The front forks broke, and Matt Smith was on the bike the run before. So it would have broken on him. If he would have run it one more time, it would have broken on him.
“Matt’s training her,” he said of Jianna, “because he's running our program and she's riding really good. She's riding really, really good. So that's kind of cool, because he's working with her.”
Evaristo is a teammate to Jimmy Underdahl.
Meanwhile, Mike Salinas is juggling his own Top Fuel momentum, his daughter’s progress on the bike, and his non-racing businesses.
Following his victory at the most recent race, the four-wide spectacle at Charlotte’s zMAX Dragway, Salinas said, “There’s a lot of racing left. So what you can’t do is get overzealous and act like you’re all that. We’ve got to keep this thing going. It’s like a test. Everything we’re doing is a test. When you win, you’re so excited, but it’s just like another round. After you win, we’ve got another track to go to. The game changes. I get to go home, back to work, make sure everything is good over there, make sure we’ve got things settled. If my brain doesn’t fix what I need to fix, it stays on there. It’s really hard. So the same isn’t the same.”
In other words, he needs to stay focused on what’s before him this weekend.
“Brittany [Force] and I have been lucky enough to win two so far. Brittany and I are the only two who have won [twice]. She’s a tough cookie, that kid. I love her. She’s amazing,” Salinas said, making a prediction. “There’s three of us that are going to be, at the end of the year, fighting for this thing [the championship], and I believe that.”
He was including reigning champion Steve Torrence, who has won the past four crowns but might not be giving off title vibes right now with only one final-round appearance (a runner-up finish at the Las Vegas four-wide event. But Salinas isn’t discounting him. He knows Torrence will be in the hunt in a big way this fall.
“They are going to be back,” he said of Torrence and his Capco Dragster team. “So we’re going to have to race him and hopefully beat him.”
FIRST TIME AT RICHMOND – This weekend marks Funny Car driver Alexis De Joria’s first visit to Virginia Motorsports Park. But the Bandero Premium Tequila Toyota Supra racer’s team owner and crew chief, Del Worsham, certainly is familiar with it.
He won here 13 years ago in a Funny Car, and he said he loves the facility.
“The track surface at Virginia Motorsports Park is phenomenal, one of the best on tour,” Worsham said. “Tommy Franklin and the Franklin family have done such a great job with the facility. I’ve been racing there since the ’90s and won there in Funny Car in 2009.”
It’s the same for Top Fuel contenders Justin Ashley and Josh Hart, although both have experience at the track from their Top Alcohol Dragster days in the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series.
Ashley, who has the Phillips Connect and Vita C Shot Dragster in third place just 46 points behind leader Brittany Force, said, “I raced at VMP In Top Alcohol Dragster. I've driven here once in Top Alcohol Dragster at a regional event in 2018. And my dad, Mike, raced there a number of times in Funny Car. So I am relatively familiar with the racetrack. The biggest thing about racing a new track is just getting your visuals down. You want to know where the turn-offs are and how the track looks when you are in the race car. It doesn’t take long, but the little things matter. And preparation is key.”
Overall, his impression of VMP, he was “Well, I think it's great. I mean, just coming into it, you heard a lot about how nice the actual track surface was, and you can tell being out there how actually smooth it was. And the facility's nice, and it's nice to see new fans. I've never really been here before for a Top Fuel race. So everyone's excited, engaged, and obviously a really great first impression.”
Based on his memory from 2018, he said the surface “is completely different. It's funny – if you would've told me we would be in this position in 2022, racing in Top Fuel back at the same place, I probably would've said you're crazy. So to be back here, racing in Top Fuel is a totally different experience for a national event. It's just something that, it really gives you an opportunity, it gives me an opportunity, to reflect and realize how far I've come because of the really great people that we've surrounded ourselves with.”
Ashley said he didn’t have any out-of-the-ordinary apprehension Friday in trying to make a strong pass in iffy conditions: “I think there's always a certain level of apprehension, especially during the first qualifying round. Your goal is always in the first session to go A to B and then worry about the rest later so you know that you're solidly in the field and you'll be in the field for Sunday. I mean, the only apprehension is just making sure that we go down there and make a nice clean, safe lap.” He said he was pleased “not only [to] do that, but as a testament to Mike Green and Tommy DeLago, they did it and they did a great job of it, and we went all the way up to No. 2.”
Brittany Force put herself in another time zone than every other Top Fuel racer Friday with a track-record elapsed time of 3.710 seconds and a track-record speed at 335.82 mph. Ashley posted a 3.725-second E.T., and Gatornationals finalist Doug Foley is third overnight at 3.733 seconds.
Ashley said he knew his pass would be a good one.
“It felt the whole way like it was going to make it. Honestly, it felt like there was even some air to spare there. Nothing really was on edge,” he said.” Everything came back, looked nice and clean. It was pretty much making it the whole way, and from a driver's perspective, it felt nice and smooth.”
For Hart, this weekend marks the second time this year he is competing at a track for the first time. But it isn’t a complete unknown. In 2019, Hart ran his career-quickest elapsed time in a Top Alcohol Dragster, 5.132 seconds, in a first-round victory at Virginia Motorsports Park.
“I have experience from my Top Alcohol Dragster days in Virginia, but we haven’t raced in Virginia in a couple years,” he said. “I set my elapsed-time record for Top Alcohol Dragster at that track, so I feel pretty good about returning. The biggest difference will be racing my TechNet Dragster at over 320 mph but after the first pass I know it will be all good.”
He said, “We had a great season in 2021 and got off to a good start this year,” said Hart. “Then we had some issues with the new car and some things that none of us had experienced before. We worked together to figure them out, and now I really feel this team is stronger than ever. This TechNet team is going to succeed.”
ELIJAH! - When the engine builder speaks, the driver had better listen. At least, this is how Mountain Motor Pro Stock racer Elijah Morton sees it.
Morton drove his Ford-powered, large displacement Mustang to the provisional pole position in Friday's weather-delayed qualifying at the NHRA Virginia Nationals. He was one of three cars in the 6.2-second zone with a 6.223, 225.45 run.
"To be number one, it's pretty awesome," Morton said. "We got a little engine shop in Surgoinsville, Tennessee called Allen Competition Engines. There are three members of the family, and they work graveyard shifts. They got here at 11:00 last night with that engine, and they said when I leave with it, I better hold on, so there we are.
"It showed up on the scoreboard, and of course, none of those don't mean anything if they don't show up on the scoreboard. So it feels great to have at least a different color of car on the number one pole for one day, at least, anyway."
Bear in mind, Morton had three other Allen Competition engines in his hauler, but the one that was coming on Thursday Night was apparently the MOAMM (Mother of all Mountain Motors).
"This is one that we've been working on, and it's showing up a little bit here today on the first run, and I think it probably got a little more," Morton admits.
One of the more appealing facets of the Mountain Motor Pro Stocks, outside of their ability to run 6.2-second passes, is the traditional manufacturer parity.
"It's great to have parity in the class with different motor brands and different car-makers," Morton explained. "I mean, it's good for the class, and not one guy's leading the show. So to have a Ford be on the pole this time is good. Of course, [Chevy racer] JR [Carr] told me to enjoy it while I could because he's coming for me, but he's got to come to get it, so we'll see what happens."
The weather played havoc on the Friday schedule, forcing NHRA to initially push up the schedule to a 1:30 PM nitro start, only to be delayed by rain showers. The session started almost three hours later, but at the end of the nitro sessions, the skies opened up again, delaying the competition by almost 90 minutes.
With delays like this, the idle time can create a second-guess nightmare with the tuneup.
"We've changed a few things around," Morton said. "We thought we're going to run this morning; we had it set up for this afternoon, we take things out, we put things back, we change around with air change. You don't want to be too aggressive, but you want to get down. And my crew chief, Mike Allen, made a great call, and it went right down the track. I think we were one of only two that went down the left lane."
Morton's familiarity with VMP from his years of racing PDRA and back in the day with IHRA made the difference. The run which took him to the top was not without an issue or two.
"I found a little tire shaking in low gear and pulled a little early, so I was able to drive through it," Morton said. "So it was close to not going, but we didn't have it loaded for bear in second and third, so we were good, but he made a good call, and it was smooth all the way through. It was straight, and I know when I hit high gear, it was pulling hard, and I hadn't quite felt it pull like that before, so I know we got a good engine under the hood."
And while Morton has been used to racing eighth-mile, programming himself to go to the NHRA finish line was a bit challenging.
"I had to keep telling myself, 'Don't let up in eighth of a mile. Don't let up in eighth of a mile. Don't let up," Morton admitted. "And even Mike came on and said, 'You remember you running the quarter?"
"Because I was down in St. Louis, I believe it was last year against DeFlorian, and I think I forgot I was running the quarter, and I gave it back to him, in the final round, actually. So it was a lesson learned, so we didn't let out in the quarter. We might have got a little over the quarter. Might have got 1,400 feet. We wanted it all."
Friday, Morton got it all. - Bobby Bennett
CARRY ME BACK TO OLD VIRGINNY – Ron Capps won the most recent Funny Car trophy handed out here at Richmond, in 2019. He also has been to the finals two other times, in 2000 and 2007. But his memories of this facility go back even farther.
“I have such a long history with the track, having gone here in 1995, in my rookie season as a Top Fuel driver. To see the track have such an incredible rebirth and re-join the NHRA circuit back in 2018, and for us to win there in 2019 was just incredible,” the NAPA Auto Parts Toyota Supra owner-driver said.
Because the pandemic prevented the Virginia Nationals from taking place for the previous two years, Capps said he was glad to see the fans again – and to get back to work on the track and build on his early-season success.
“Our team has had a fantastic start to the year,” he said. “We’re eager to put our new Toyota GR Supra back on the race track after a successful debut in Charlotte, and you can’t ask for a better racing surface than what we’ll see in Richmond.”
Capps won the four-wide race at Las Vegas and was runner-up in February at Pomona, Calif., in his first outing as a team owner.
His next victory will be No. 70, and he is on track to hit the 600-race plateau by the Topeka race in August.
DID YOU KNOW? – Angie Smith recorded the Pro Stock Motorcycle’s first 200-mph speed at Virginia Motorsports Park during Friday qualifying. With her track-mark 6.788-second run, she earned both ends of the VMP record.
* Although a huge percentage of Pro Stock racers live east of the Mississippi River and along the East Coast, the category is not competing here this weekend. Pro Stock will return to action June 3-5 at New England Dragway at Epping, N.H. Erica Enders, the Camping World Series’ only three-time winner this season, leads the class standings in her Melling Performance/Elite Motorsports Chevy Camaro.
* The next Funny Car victory by John Force or teammate Robert Hight will be the 150th for Chevrolet since 1967. The Camaro has reached the winners circle 69 times.
* The last time Shawn Langdon drove Top Fuel dragster down the track at Virginia Motorsports Park was in his rookie season of 2009. He qualified No. 8 and lost a close first round match-up to current teammate Doug Kalitta. In 2018 and 2019, Langdon raced a Toyota Funny Car at Richmond. He said his team “has been making progress over these first few races” and was hoping for some extra looks at the surface that no driver has seen since pre-pandemic years. But he said, “We can’t control Mother Nature, The great thing about this DHL Toyota Top Fuel dragster team and our whole Kalitta Motorsports organization is we all work together. We will make the most out of whatever opportunity we get when it comes to qualifying and race day.”
* Three of the four John Force Racing drivers have recorded five victories in the six races. Robert Hight in the Auto Club Chevy Camaro won the first two Funny Car decisions (at Pomona and Phoenix). Brittany Force was the first in Top Fuel to score back-to-back victories in her Flav-R-Pac / Monster Energy Dragster (at Las Vegas and Houston). And team boss John Force earned his 155th victory in the most recent event, the Circle K Four-Wide at Charlotte. The JFR Funny Car tandem owns both ends of the class record at Virginia Motorsports Park: 3.899 seconds by Force and 326.32 mph by Hight – both in May 2019.
* Only 51 points separate the top four Top Fuel drivers. Brittany Force leads by 17 points over Mike Salinas, 46 over Justin Ashley, and 51 over Steve Torrence. The Funny Car standings are just as tight, with Matt Hagan in control. He has a 22-point advantage over No. 2 Robert Hight and a 66-point advantage over No. 3 Ron Capps.
ANGIE RUNS 200 - A week ago, Matt Smith said the Buell was competing at a disadvantage against the Suzuki. For at least one day, a week later, his wife proved him wrong.
Angie Smith punched her way into the Virginia Motorsports Park record books on Friday afternoon when she set both ends of the track record, earning her the provisional number one position after the first qualifying session.
Smith, aboard her Denso Buell, laid down a stellar 6.788 elapsed time and a speed of 200.38 miles per hour, marking the first 200 miles per hour Pro Stock Motorcycle pass at Virginia Motorsports Park.
"To go 200, that's exciting," Smith said. "Those numbers are big when it comes up on the scoreboard. All these fans want to see 200 miles an hour side-by-side runs."
Smith's record-breaking run comes on a day plagued by multiple delays due to persistent rain. But despite the ever-changing track conditions, Smith credits the numerous testing sessions from Virginia Motorsports Park, which she calls her second home, for helping her crew chief and husband, Matt Smith, find the correct tune-up to make that run.
"I love this facility," Smith said. "We come here and test a lot, and Tommy and Judy Franklin do an awesome job, and Tyler does an awesome job on the track. We love coming here. So I would say that this is my second home as far as testing. Charlotte's my first of course because it's right down the road. But so far it's good, and hopefully we can keep the momentum going this weekend."
Pro Stock Motorcycle points leader Steve Johnson sits second after the first qualifying session with a 6.826 at 198.12 miles per hour and finds himself sandwiched in between the Smiths as arch-rival Matt Smith sits third with a 6.827 at 199.32 miles per hour.
Fourteen bikes made an attempt in the first qualifying session, and Jianna Evaristo (previously Salinas) made her return to Pro Stock Motorcycle competition after a devasting accident in testing in the offseason and currently rounds out the field in the number fourteen position with a 7.408 at 153.65 miles per hour. - Darin Williams Jr.