2023 NHRA ARIZONA NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
SUNDAY NOTEBOOK - THE TEN: TEN DEFINING MOMENTS FROM THE NHRA ARIZONA NATIONALS
1. CAMRIE CARUSO NOTCHES FIRST PRO STOCK VICTORY – Pro Stock sophomore Camrie Caruso made NHRA drag-racing history Sunday at the Arizona Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park near Phoenix, beating Bo Butner in the final round. But the second woman (behind five-time champion Erica Enders) to win in the Pro Stock class had a controversial road to her first pro victory.
In the second round, Caruso faced No. 1 qualifier Cristian Cuadra, who Saturday evening had written his own footnote in the record book as the first Mexican driver to lead a field into eliminations. As they went to stage, Caruso lit both staging bulbs -- not an illegal move but not the best of etiquette. Once the first driver turns on the second staging light, the other has a maximum of seven seconds in which to stage. In the split-second confusion, Cuadra was timed out and not permitted to make the run.
Fernando Cuadra Sr. -- his father, teammate and car owner -- was angry on the starting line as his son’s car was removed. He claimed incorrectly that her move was illegal and said his son “is educated by my family to be courteous, and this is discourtesy. It was a good show. Didn’t happen.”
Dave Connolly, Caruso’s crew chief, said his driver simply made an innocent mistake: “It was just an accident on Camrie’s part. No harm intended on that one. She just took too much of the first bulb and got ’em both.”
Caruso agreed. “Honestly, I took way too much of the first bulb. I went in extremely early to the second bulb. I would never do that intentionally to anyone,” she said. “I definitely didn’t mean to do it there.” She called Cuadra “a great racer” and said it would have been a “tough race . . . if we would’ve gone.
“As soon as I put my line-lock on, it moved a little bit and turned on both bulbs. Then we were in,” she said. “It wasn’t intentional. I did go over and say I’m sorry and that it wasn’t intentional at all. I don’t really like to play starting-line games, because I probably messed myself up, to be honest. I’m still new at this, and you know, we’re really thankful for the win. But it was just a mistake.”
Caruso, the 19th woman to win in a pro category, recorded her personal-milestone victory in her second final-round appearance – again at a racetrack that was marking its final NHRA event. Caruso was runner-up to Enders last spring at Houston Raceway Park, where the land has been sold for commercial expansion.
“We said if we all do our jobs, we win the race,” Caruso said. She’ll race in this coming weekend’s edition of the Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge in Pomona, Calif., and be eligible to win $7,500 and three points toward Countdown supremacy. She said, “We’re going to give it our all to win both.”
Caruso said that at the moment she crossed the finish line in the final round, she didn’t know who had won.
“I’m not going to lie – I wasn’t really sure if I won or not until I pulled off the racetrack,” she said, “because I like to just focus on going straight. I don’t really look around, but it was so awesome. I just went up there and tried to make it just another round and tried my best to do my job, because I knew the guys were going to do theirs.”
She dedicated her trophy to grandfather, “Papa Joe” Caruso, who was home in New York this weekend.
“I’m just excited and thankful. I was really hoping we’d start the year off with a good bang,” she said. “My crew chief, Dave Connelly, has had a great track record with younger drivers and new drivers in the class. I need to hold up my end of the bargain, because my KB Titan teammates always hold up theirs.”
Surprisingly, Enders – the 46-time winner and reigning and five-time Pro Stock champion who’s poised to hit her 440th career round-win plateau – has blanked in the season’s first two races. She dropped out in the first round at both Gainesville, Fla., and Phoenix.
2. CRISTIAN CUADRA HAS SWEET-AND-SOUR EXPERIENCE – For his part, Cristian Cuadra had a productive weekend, despite his race-day disappointment.
The third-year Pro Stock racer made history Saturday as the first Mexican to qualify No. 1 in any pro class at an NHRA event and put a Ford Mustang at the top of the order for the first time since “Dyno Don” Nicholson topped the qualifying charts at the 1977 U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis. But his race day turned sour in the second round, thanks to a starting-line faux-pas by Caruso.
He was timed out when Caruso quickly double-bulbed him at the Christmas Tree, and he was timed out. But he found positives in the trip to Phoenix.
“It’s crazy. Everything starts with a dream,” he said in a happier moment of the weekend. “I was a kid and saw my dad racing, and I wanted to be in that spot. You meet the people at Elite Motorsports to help make the dream come true. My heart wants to go out of my chest, and I feel really, really happy. That’s why we’re here. We want to make history for our country. Now my next goal is to try and get a Wally. That’s something important for me. We want to make history in Mexico, and we’re already making it.
“I’m really proud that we are making history for our country,” he said. “It was a little weird for me, because I knew I didn’t have a good reaction time. But I got up to the top end and looked at my time slip and realized the reaction time was horrible, but the time slip looks awesome. We have a really good team who has my back. They are helping me to learn how to drive and to learn how to stay calm. Thank you, Rick Jones, for the car you built. It only has two events and it’s already flying.”
3. OFFSEASON TENSION ADDS DRAMA TO FUNNY CAR FINAL - The Funny Car showdown was one that drag-racing fans were eager to see. It became a final round featuring not just two three-time Camping World Drag Racing Series champions, but the current one and the one who thought he should be champion this year. Reigning kingpin Ron Capps, the one who won by merely three points last fall, squared off against Robert Hight, who felt cheated by the Countdown points system.
Capps downplayed the offseason strain between the two of them. He said Hight and crew chief Jimmy Prock have set the performance bar and paid respect for the John Force Racing team. But Hight said he still “had a bone to pick” with Capps, presumably for saying that he was becoming irritated with Hight’s Countdown complaints and telling Hight to “get over it.” But Hight also acknowledged Capps’ expertise and said he was looking forward to racing him again.
They’ll have another chance in six days at the Winternationals at Pomona to joust against each other for a Countdown edge. Both earned spots for the first time in the Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge, Hight by knocking off No. 1 qualifier and keen rival Bob Tasca III in the second round and Capps by besting Blake Alexander in the quarterfinals.
But in Sunday’s final round, the spotlight fell on Hight. And he reveled in it.
“I won my first round of racing here. I hope this isn’t the last race here,” Hight said, “but if it is, we’ve got the Wally [trophy].”
Hight admitted that “qualifying did not go well.” This was the third time in a calendar year that he did not make a qualifying pass quicker than four seconds. But every time that happened and his numbers were subpar, Hight has won. He said those gritty victories “are the ones you love. That’s where you dig down after qualifying and you just never give up on that team.”
Capps said nothing about Hight in particular. He focused more on his semifinal victory over Blake Alexander and then his “excitement after winning the semifinals, as close of a race as that was with Alexis, and Del (Worsham) and that great team.” He said, “I can’t believe how happy we were, knowing we were going to be in the #2Fast2Tasty event. It has changed things for a lot of the teams, so we’re looking forward to that in Pomona.”
In spite of losing traction against Hight in the final, Capps said his was “overall, a great weekend here.” He said he’ll remember a “very demanding track, very hard to get down, very hard to drive. I couldn’t be more proud of our team. I’ve got to thank the Toyota engineers. They were helping us a ton with navigating the track conditions. So, great job by everyone, and the best part is we get to go straight into Pomona.”
4. JUSTIN ASHLEY FOCUSES ON FINISHING STRONG – After earning his six overall Top Fuel victory and first at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, Justin Ashley realized how things are flip-flopped from last season – and how that’s all right.
“It’s ironic, because last year, we won the first race (the Winternationals, at Pomona) and then lost in the first round at the Arizona Nationals. This time was the opposite. We lost in the first round the first race (the Gatornationals, at Gainesville, Fla.) and came back and won the Arizona Nationals. It sets the tone for the year,” he said.
“You know you got to start strong, but you also got to finish strong especially with the Countdown format. We learned last year that it may be more important to be able to finish strong. But just learning, just growing, winning definitely helps us to collect some momentum. Every point matters, whether it’s early in the year or late in the year. So (being) able to collect those points early on, I think, is really significant.”
Ashley, who improved to fourth place in the standings, defeated three Top Fuel champions (Tony Schumacher, Steve Torrence and Shawn Langdon) with a combined 13 crowns and this year’s Gatornationals winner, Mike Salinas.
“It was an incredible race day. To be honest with you, it really was an incredible weekend,” Ashley said. “We knew coming into the weekend that we’re going to have to go through a gauntlet of opponents just if we wanted to give ourselves a chance to win on Sunday. My crew chiefs, Mike Green and Tommy De Lago, they learned a lot. They really approach this the right way. We made a lot of changes in the offseason, and they took Friday and Saturday to make quality laps down the racetrack and learn. We were in a good position to go rounds on Sunday. I think that proved to be the case.
“You have to have four perfect rounds of racing to just give yourself a chance to win, and there were a lot of really great races out there. You had the eight-time champ, Gainesville champ, the four-time champ and a one-time champ. There was no escaping these guys,” he said, “but I am just really proud of my team and grateful that we collected this win.”
Ashley saved his best for the last, for a match-up between perhaps the two best “leavers” in the pro ranks that heightened the anticipation for the Top Fuel final round.
“I knew before that round that they were going to try and step it up because Shawn had been running so well. I knew that they were going to try and take it from that 3.74 range to the 3.70 or 3.71 range,” he said. “I couldn’t have been happier when I looked at the time slip. Just a total team effort, and they’ve been tweaking things. They’ve been working on things, and we’re able to have four rounds today and collect the win. But maybe even more importantly, long run, we’ve got four more runs to collect data. So proud of our Phillips Connect Toyota team powered by National Debt Relief.”
Ashley said they experimented a little bit this weekend: “I think we did make some changes, maybe slightly back to our old set-up. But I think we really stayed with the new one, and it just takes time. And we knew that it was going to take time. It was going to take laps. So it’s just a matter of being patient. Mike Green and Tommy De Lago, they were really patient. I think maybe they went back to the old set-up a touch with a few things. But for the most part, it was just them getting used to the new setup. Hats off to them and the guys. We have a resilient group, and it showed with their ability to put the past behind them and focus on just this race.”
5. DOUG KALITTA GETS A VICTORY – Doug Kalitta hadn’t won any race since the October 2020 St. Louis event, but he made up for lost time Saturday. He won the Top Fuel version of the Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge, defeating Mike Salinas in the final round, and secured his 51st overall top-qualifying position and second straight here at Phoenix. Kalitta aced his first-round assignment against Rob Passey, but Kalitta Motorsports teammate Shawn Langdon ended his bid for that elusive 50th triumph.
Current class champion Brittany Force set the top speed of the meet at 336.23 mph, and Doug Kalitta had low elapsed time of the weekend at 3.679 seconds.
Leah Pruett and Steve Torrence will return to the Challenge this coming weekend at In N Out Pomona Dragstrip. Finalists Shawn Langdon and Justin Ashley will race for the $10,000 bonus money and maximum three points for the first time.
10. TASCA GETS SOLO AFTER ALL - Bob Tasca III thought one of the biggest perks of securing his 10th career No. 1 Funny Car start would be having a bye run in the first round.
He figured that Jim Campbell would not make the show because his run in Saturday’s first qualifying session was disqualified because it didn’t meet the weight requirement and he was unable to take advantage of his final chance to break into the 16-car field because of a staging-lane mishap.
Campbell’s car rolled up against the back of the team’s tow vehicle. Thankfully, no one was injured - no one was in the immediate area of the incident.
However, the front of the body was damaged enough that the body suffered a crack just above the wheel well. Campbell had no choice but to skip the third overall and final qualifying session.
Race officials inserted Campbell into the lineup for Sunday eliminations because he made legitimate attempts to qualify. So he was the No. 16 starter, set for a match-up with Tasca.
But on race-day morning, Tasca got his solo pass. Campbell’s car was removed from the starting line again. Tasca fell to eventual winner Robert Hight in the second round. - Susan Wade
JUSTIN ASHLEY BLAZES HIS WAY TO WIN - There’s no question that fellow NHRA Top Fuel racers can’t sleep on driver Justin Ashley.
The young star is a force to be reckoned with week after week, and on Sunday, he was the last man standing at the Arizona Nationals near Phoenix.
In the finals, Ashley and his crew saved the best for last as he clocked a 3.705-second elapsed time at 329.34 mph to defeat Shawn Langdon’s 3.732-second lap at 329.58 mph at Wild Horse Motorsports Park.
This was Ashley’s sixth career NHRA Top Fuel national event win and his first in Phoenix.
Ashley moved to fourth in the points standings as he qualified No. 7 and defeated eight-time world champ Tony Schumacher, Mike Salinas, four-time world champ Steve Torrence and past world champ Langdon on Sunday.
“It was an incredible race day,” Ashley said. “To be honest with you, it really was an incredible weekend. We knew coming into the weekend that we would have to go through a gauntlet of opponents just if we wanted to give ourselves a chance to win on Sunday. My crew chiefs, Mike Green and Tommy DeLago, learned a lot, and they really approached this the right way. We made a lot of changes in the offseason, and they took Friday and Saturday to make quality laps down the racetrack and learn. We were in a good position to go rounds on Sunday. I think that proved to be the case.
“You have to have four perfect rounds of racing to just give yourself a chance to win, and there were a lot of really great racers out there. You had the eight-time champ (Schumacher), Gainesville champ (Salinas), the four-time champ (Torrence), and a one-time champ (Langdon). There was no escaping these guys, but I am just really proud of my team and grateful that we collected this win.”
Ashley also was thrilled his quickest E.T. happened when it mattered most in the finals.
“I knew before that round that they were going to try and step it up because Shawn (Langdon) had been running so well,” Ashley said. “I knew that they were going to try and take it from that 3.74 range to the 3.70 or 3.71 range. I couldn’t have been happier when I looked at the time slip. Just a total team effort, and they’ve been tweaking things. They’ve been working on things and we’re able to have four rounds today and collect the win, but maybe even more importantly, in the long run, we’ve got four more runs to collect data. So proud of our Phillips Connect Toyota team powered by National Debt Relief. It was just a really awesome, fantastic, and fun day.”
Early season success is nothing new to Ashley, but this year he did things opposite of what unfolded for him in the first two races of 2022.
“It’s ironic because last year we won the first race (Winternationals) and then lost in the first round at the Arizona Nationals,” he said. “This time was the opposite. We lost in the first round of the first race (Gatornationals) and came back and won the Arizona Nationals. It sets the tone for the year. You know you got to start strong, but you also got to finish strong, especially with the Countdown format. We learned last year that it may be more important to be able to finish strong, but just learning just, growing winning definitely helps us to collect some momentum.
“Every point matters whether it’s early in the year or late in the year, so it’s we’re able to collect those points early on, I think is really significant. I’m just really excited to have this momentum now going into Pomona, which is one of my favorite races.”
A year ago, Ashley won three races and was runner-up four times, finishing fourth in the final points standings. When the team struggled at the season-opening Gatornationals, Ashley acknowledged plenty of brainstorming was going on.
“I think we did make some changes, maybe slightly back to our old setup, but I think we really stayed with the new one, and it just takes time,” Ashley said. “We knew that it was going to take time. It was going to take laps, so it’s just a matter of being patient. Mike Green and Tommy DeLago, they were really patient. I think maybe they went back to the old setup a touch with a few things, but for the most part, it was just them getting used to the new setup. Hats off to them and the guys. We have a resilient group, and it showed with their ability to put the past behind them and focus on just this race and focus on the future.”
When Ashley advanced to the Phoenix semifinals, he earned a spot in the Mission #2Fast2Tasty NHRA Challenge, a new program that debuted in Phoenix and will continue at the Lucas Oil Winternationals March 30-April 2 in Pomona, Calif.
During Saturday’s qualifying sessions, the drivers who reached the semifinals in Phoenix will re-run the semifinals and final, earning additional purse and bonus points.
“It is exciting, and my hat’s off to Mission Foods and NHRA for putting this on,” Ashley said. “This is just another opportunity to go out there and compete like it is race day. You might see some pedaling on Saturday. We are going to see a lot of people there because it is Phillips Connect’s hometown. So, we will have people from Phillips Connect and National Debt Relief on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. It is another opportunity to race for a prize, and it will be exciting and fun and a chance to double up.” - Tracy Renck
THAT'S TWO IN A ROW - The weekend didn’t have a perfect script for Robert Hight.
The past world champion driver’s best run in three qualifying laps was a 4.218-second elapsed time, leaving him No. 9 on the qualifying ladder at the Arizona Nationals near Phoenix.
However, Hight wasn’t worried about his plight because of his renowned crew chief Jimmy Prock – and he was right.
Hight mowed through the competition on Sunday, defeating reigning world champ Ron Capps in the final race at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park.
In the finals, Hight clocked a 3.930-second elapsed time at 328.62 mph, while Capps slowed to 5.534 seconds after smoking the tires.
“You just never give up when you have Jimmy Prock as your crew chief,” Hight said. “You just know that you’re one run away from fixing this thing and being back to where we need to be. He races aggressively. He wants low E.T. every round, and we had that (Sunday). We had four rounds where we were low E.T. That’s Jimmy Prock-style racing and it makes my job easy. I just have to go up there and stand on the gas and do my job and keep it in the lane.
“It’s pretty impressive that they didn’t give up. We were planning on testing (Monday), and we still are, and we were kind of thinking we might abandon this setup. We went to Gainesville (Fla.) in February, and we flew. We made some great, great runs, but we were in great conditions. You get to a little warmer stuff, and we are still learning, and you think maybe this will not work with these warmer conditions and it is only going to get warmer in the summer. But I’m really proud of the guys to keep picking at it and getting it where they want.”
This was Hight’s 62nd national event win, the second in a row at the Arizona Nationals, and the third of his career at the facility, as the other came in 2012.
Hight’s victory parade consisted of wins over his boss, legendary John Force, No. 1 qualifier Bob Tasca III, Chad Green, and then Capps.
“We better get used to (no gimmes),” Hight said. “This whole Funny Car field is stacked from top to bottom, and to win one of these races, you are going to have to go through four hitters, and we did that (Sunday).
“You can just tell when Jimmy is on to something. He has the confidence, and that gives me confidence. I drove it until I saw the win light on the scoreboard (against Capps). Then there was a lot of static on the radio because everyone was wanting to talk at the same time.”
When it comes to racing Capps, Hight welcomes lining up against someone he respects.
“I have raced Ron for a lot of years,” Hight said. “I think he started racing ten years before I did, and I definitely have a lot of respect for him. He’s ice-cold. He doesn’t make mistakes. You know when you go up there against him, and no matter what team he has been on, he’s been tough. We have to put last year behind us. If we keep focusing on last year, we are not going to get where we want this year. This is one battle we won but we really want to win the war. He will bring the best out in us, and I’m sure we will bring the best out in him.”
For years, the primary sponsor on Hight’s Funny Car has been Auto Club of Southern California, but that switched to Flav-R-Pac Frozen Fruits and Vegetables in 2023.
“This is my first race without Auto Club of Southern California, and I don’t even recognize my own car,” Hight said. “But Flav-R-Pac and Frank Tiegs stepped up and bought us, and it is amazing to get the win here with them. I have won before when Frank is here and tried to give him the trophy and he will never take it, so this trophy is going to his wife. She will take it.”
Hight had a tough two races before Phoenix as he lost the 2022 season world championship to Capps by three points and then his Funny Car broke in a second-round loss to J.R. Todd in Gainesville.
“This win is huge,” Hight said. “Some of the stuff we are working on right now is to fix what happened to us in Pomona, (Calif.) last year. It kind of goes back to the final round in Las Vegas where (Matt) Hagan got us and then Pomona, we lost second round. Jimmy Prock didn’t go into the offseason just thinking we are on cruise control and we won eight races and let’s do it again. He’s trying to fix what went wrong last year, so this win is big.
“We went low E.T. the first round in Gainesville, and I really thought we had a car that could win that race, but we didn’t get the chance because we had a mistake. I’m proud of the guys for getting everything back and working hard and they are ready to conquer this mini-Western Swing we are on.”
Hight took a moment to discuss why Wild Horse Motorsports Park has been good to JFR. John Force won a record eight times in Phoenix.
“We used to come here for years and years and tested, and we have made a lot runs here,” Hight said. “I love coming here. The fans are great. Out here in the desert, there’s nothing like the sunsets you have out here. It is a fun place. I got my first round here. You hope it isn’t the last one, but if it is, ‘Hey, we got the last Wally.’ I will say this to see the crowd we had for three days that pumps you up as a driver. They are back in the pits with you and that’s just what makes NHRA drag racing awesome. I hope the powers to be saw that and reconsider because we have a good product here. The fans come out to see this, and they were treated to some great racing.”
When Hight advanced to the Phoenix semifinals, he earned a spot in the Mission #2Fast2Tasty NHRA Challenge, a new program that debuted in Phoenix and will continue at the Lucas Oil Winternationals next weekend in Pomona.
During Saturday’s qualifying sessions, the drivers who reached the semifinals in Phoenix will re-run the semifinals and final, earning additional purse and bonus points.
“It is exciting, and it is going to be a new ballgame for us,” Hight said. “I never ever really raced on Saturdays. It will be a different mindset. You are going to have to focus a little differently during normal qualifying runs because reaction times really don’t matter at all. Now, it is for something. Money and bonus points that go toward a championship. When you lose a championship by three points, those little points are going to add up, and we are going to try and get as many as we can.” - - Tracy Renck
ATTABOY GIRL! - Camrie Caruso dismissed any notion of a sophomore slump for her and her team in 2023. The 2022 NHRA Rookie of the Year made history at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports park when she captured her first career win in Pro Stock at the track's final race, powering her Powerbuilt Tools / Tequila Comisario Camaro to a win over Bo Butner in the final round to become just the second woman to win Pro Stock.
"I'm just excited and thankful, and I was really hoping we'd start the year off with a really good bang," Caruso said.
"There's just a whole bunch of people here that I couldn't have done it without, my team and the partners. It was a great day of racing. We said last night after Q3, I was like, 'Hey, we got to win this because I want hibachi tonight.' And Mike said we were going to win it and we did. It was awesome, and I'm just thankful and blessed to have the team and the partners I have."
Caruso had her work cut out for her on the road to her first victory. After taking down Deric Kramer handily in the opening round with a solid 6.564 at 210 miles per hour, minor controversy surrounded Caruso when staging against No. 1 qualifier Cristian Cuadra in round two. Caruso went in, lighting both pre-stage and stage bulbs immediately, which in turn would count Cuadra out as he was unable fully stage his racecar in the seven seconds that are allowed once the driver in the other lane is fully staged. The KB Titan driver admitted it was an honest mistake on her part.
"Honestly, I just took too much of the first bulb," Caruso admitted. "And as soon as I put my line lock on, it moved a little bit and turned down both bulbs, and there we were. It wasn't intentional. I did go over and say I was sorry and that it wasn't intentional at all. I don't like to really play starting line games because I've probably messed myself up, to be honest. I'm still new at this, and we're really thankful for the win, but it was just a mistake."
Caruso had to get her head back in the game for the semifinals as she matched up against the best car on the property in eliminations, driven by Matt Hartford. Hartford tied low elapsed time of the event with a stout 6.552, then backed that up with a 6.559 in the second round, which would be a full three-hundredths quicker than the next best run in that round. However, Caruso was up for the task as she strapped a (.017) light to Hartford's (.037) winning on a holeshot, running a 6.568 at 210 to Hartford's quicker but losing 6.566 at 210 to advance into her second career final round in Pro Stock.
In the last, ever Pro Stock final at Wild Horse Pass, Caruso, whose first and only final came at Houston last season, took on Bo Butner, who was searching for his first win in Pro Stock since 2019. Butner took down reigning Pro Stock champ Erica Erica Enders in the opening round, followed up by wins over Fernando Cuadra Jr and Kyle Koretsky to set up a classic KB Titan vs. Elite matchup in the final round.
Caruso proved to be too much for Butner in the final as Caruso used a starting line advantage, cutting a (.044) light to Butner's (.054) and outran him by one-thousandths of a second on the racetrack, laying down a 6.592 at 210 to Butner's 6.593 at 209 to capture her first career win in Pro Stock and become the first Pro Stock driver in history to score their first career win in Phoenix.
"Honestly, I'm not going to lie. I wasn't really sure if I won or not until I pulled off the racetrack," Caruso said. "I like to just focus on going straight, so I don't really look around. But it was so awesome, and I just went up there. And it was another round, and I tried my best to do my job because I knew the guys were going to do theirs."
With the monkey of winning her first race off her back, Caruso admits that the pressure to perform and live up to expectations with the merger of her team and KB racing in the offseason to form KB Titan Racing was definitely weighing on her mind.
"Not going to lie, Mike and Dave have history and with Tanner Gray and all of that, and they have been very successful together," Caruso said. "To know that, okay, I get to work with both of them, now I need to hold up my end of the bargain because they always hold up theirs. I was a little worried this season just because they've had so much success already together. And then the whole KB Titan team is extremely successful. My teammates all have wins and number one qualifiers and championships, so I just wanted to be able to hold up the name and do good for all of them."
Caruso hopes to keep the momentum going as the tour now heads to Pomona, California, and the all-new rebranded In-N-Out Pomona Dragstrip for the NHRA Winternationals, the same place where Caruso was named Rookie of the Year at the end of last season. She's also looking forward to competing in the all-new Mission Foods 2Fast 2Tasty Challenge for a chance at the money and championship bonus points for the countdown.
"We're really excited," Caruso said. "I know that the 2Fast2Tasty is such a cool thing that they've added for us this year. And we're really excited to participate in it. And honestly, it's going to be a great time. And I just want to say thank you to everybody who's been a part of it. Ewan, Sadie, my whole team, my family, all my partners, and my teammates. I'm really thankful." - - Darin Williams Jr.
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK: KALITTA, DeJORIA, COUGHLIN GOBBLE UP FIRST #2FAST2TASTY POINTS; RACERS WEIGH IN ON NEW BONUS PROGRAM; CAMPBELL MAKES FIELD DESPITE MISHAP
KALITTA GETS BACK IN WIN COLUMN – For Doug Kalitta, victory was a long time coming – and he wrung the most out of his Mission #2Fast2Tasty Top Fuel Challenge triumph Saturday during qualifying for the NHRA Arizona Nationals at Chandler, Ariz.
Kalitta became the first $10,000 Top Fuel winner of the new bonus race that awards Countdown points – and in the process, he recorded his second straight No. 1 qualifying position at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park and 51st overall.
The Mission #2Fast2Tasty Challenge pits semifinalists from the previous national-event race against each other again – for cash and valuable bonus points that will be “banked” and credited to their regular-season points total at the close of the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis as the Countdown begins. The runs will count as qualifying runs.
The Mac Tools Toyota Dragster driver used a 3.868-second, 294.82-mph pass on the suburban Phoenix 1,000-foot course to defeat Mike Salinas in the Valley Services Dragster. Salinas lost traction and cut off the engine, settling for a 4.523-second elapsed time at a speed of 171.97 mph.
Kalitta won in the first round against a red-lighting Steve Torrence to advance to the final. Salinas polished off Leah Pruett in his first-round match.
“It was awesome,” Kalitta said, thanking the Mission Foods representatives. “It’s been fun all day. We're just happy to go some rounds and definitely getting the win light to come on. So hat’s off to Alan (Johnson) and all my guys on this Mac Tools Toyota car. We're happy, and we'll just roll into tomorrow and see if we can keep it going.”
Brian Husen, Kalitta’s crew chief, also thanked Mission Foods as well as “all these guys that stuck around with us from last year. We definitely had a tough year last year, and our goal is the championship. But it's good to start off with a win this early in the year. It's been quite a while since we've been in the winners circle, and we're happy to be there. And we're ready to come out here tomorrow and see if we can give it a ‘two-peat,’ I guess you would say.”
The victory was the first of any kind for Kalitta since he earned the Wally trophy at St. Louis in 2020. He’ll be gunning for his 50th Top Fuel victory when he takes on No. 16 qualifier Rob Passey in the first round of Sunday’s eliminations.
“We're working on it. I couldn't be more excited with what's going on,” Kalitta said. “And you just have to be patient, apparently, because I've been trying to get another Wally, but we're sneaking up on it for sure. Hopefully tomorrow.”
DeJORIA SHAKES OFF SCARE FOR $10,000 PRIZE – Funny Car’s Alexis DeJoria got a scare in her first-round bonus-race run. That's when opponent Matt Hagan crossed the center line near her Bandero Toyota Supra, and she went on to beat JR Todd in the final round for their class for the $10,000 payout.
DeJoria’s 3.914-second E.T. at 324.51 mph trumped Todd’s 7.782, 86.99. He aced DeJoria on the Christmas Tree (.078 of a second to her .113) but lost traction about midway through his run. Todd reached the final round by eliminating Chad Green.
DeJoria said, “Just coming back to this racetrack after not being here for awhile – and I had my very first win here in nitro Funny Car in 2014 -- has all these good feelings, good vibes for me.
“And then today, first round against Matt Hagan, we made it past him. We ran pretty good. It was a hellacious ride at the top end,” she said.
“My guys are just so badass. They're the reason that we're in this position in the first place, because I sucked (at Gainesville) on my reaction times. And they gave me a great car. I got a great team and a great car and ran .91,” DeJoria said. ”And it's been a tough, tough weekend, trying to get down the track for everybody. But thank you to Mission. I'm so excited. Thank you, guys.”
Todd will have the chance to avenge Saturday’s loss when he races DeJoria in the first round of eliminations Sunday. She qualified No. 2 behind Bob Tasca III, and Todd will start from the No. 15 position.
TASCA SHINES ON SATURDAY - During the offseason, Bob Tasca III brought in new co-crew chiefs with veterans Todd Okuhara and Aaron Brooks for his nitro Funny Car.
The move is paying early dividends as Tasca clocked a 3.898-second run at 329.50 mph in Q3 Saturday to take the No. 1 qualifying spot at the Arizona Nationals near Phoenix, the second race of the NHRA season.
Saturday’s top run was Tasca’s 10th career No. 1 qualifying position in nitro Funny Car and his first since he was atop the qualifying ladder in consecutive races last year in Seattle and Topeka, Kan.
“It was great, especially when you get the bye first round,” Tasca said. “It is just hat’s off to Todd and Aaron and the whole team. They are very different than anyone I have ever raced with. You saw all the cars struggling, and they don’t care what anyone else runs; they just focus on what they believe we can run.
“They have a very aggressive mindset. Track conditions were certainly good enough to run .80s. They made some adjustments from the 80s we were running in Gainesville (the first race of the season) because the track is clearly not as good, particularly since there are some bumps just by the transition as a driver, I was talking to Matt Hagan, and the car comes off the grand two, three inches and you’re turning the steering wheel to try and keep it in the center of the groove. I think some of it; you saw some drivers get out of the center of the groove. Then you make it even more challenging to get down this racetrack. Hat’s off to the guys. I love the aggressive mindset of this team. I think it is going to pay big dividends as the season unfolds. Clearly, starting off in the No. 1 spot is a good place to be Sunday morning.”
Tasca did take a moment to discuss the fact this is the final national event at the Arizona Nationals.
“For me to see that sellout crowd (Saturday) is bittersweet,” he said. “I love racing here. To see a sellout crowd and people with the last pass T-Shirts on, maybe someone from Wild Horse is listening or watching, but please don’t go away. Someone said there was a road coming through, and the road got canceled. This is an iconic place; I think 38 years we have been coming here. This is where I got licensed; there are so many great memories in Phoenix. To see the fans come out and support us, it is bittersweet. I’m brokenhearted to know. This is going to be the last race.” - Tracy Renck
COUGHLIN UNBEATEN SO FAR THIS SEASON – Pro Stock’s Troy Coughlin Jr. earned the distinction of becoming the first-ever #2Fast2Tasty champion with his victory over Greg Anderson.
Coughlin’s $7,500 quarter-mile E.T. was 6.572 seconds at 208.78, and Anderson challenged with a 6.603, 208.91. And for his effort, Coughlin gets to line up against Anderson one more time -- during the opening round of eliminations Sunday. Coughlin took the No. 7 spot in the order and Anderson qualified 10th.
“Gosh, I tell you,” Coughlin said, “I can't say enough about my group at Elite Motorsports. They've got this Jegs.com White Castle machine just absolutely flying. This thing is absolutely just trucking. So can't say enough ... my guys, my family at home ... just excited to keep going this year, and we're just so happy to be here. I wish we could race every day. So let's keep going.”
Dallas Glenn was Coughlin’s first-round casualty, and Mason McGaha fell to Anderson in the kickoff round.
HISTORY BELONGS TO CUADRA - Cristian Cuadra has slowly made a name for himself in NHRA’s Pro Stock ranks.
On Saturday at the Arizona Nationals near Phoenix, he made history.
Cuadra clocked a 6.552-second time at 210.24 mph to become the first Mexican-born driver to capture a No. 1 qualifying position in NHRA history.
“It feels really special for me,” said Cuadra, who made his run Friday, and it held up. “My dad (Fernando) didn’t qualify, and (Fernando) Jr. is struggling a little bit. But I think if I’m No. 1, they can also be. That makes me really, really happy. Of course, you’re always nervous that you’re No. 1 and everybody is watching you. It is a weird feeling. I always dreamed to be in that spot, and today is the day.”
Cuadra, who drives a 2023 Ford Mustang, gets his engine power from Elite Motorsports. He will face Alan Prusiensky in the first round.
This is Cristian’s 52nd career Pro Stock race, highlighted by his runner-up finish at the Las Vegas Four-Wide race last spring. He finished eighth in last year’s final points standings.
“When I was born, my dad was drag racing in Mexico,” Cristian said. “When I was three months old, my dad took me to the racetrack, so I was there since I was a baby. In 2003, he started racing Pro Stock, and I was four years old at that time. Every time I came, I was playing with the tires, and I always cleaning the car. Since I was a kid, I wanted to be doing this. I had the opportunity to do it. The business is doing really good, thank God. I’m here. This is what I love, and it has been really, really good.”
Carrying the Mexican flag to this type of honor in the sport of drag racing is something that isn’t lost on Cristian.
“I’m really, really proud that we are making history,” he said. “That’s why we are here because we wanted to make history for our country. It is hard for a Mexican (born) driver to come up here and drag race because the economy is different. We have really good drivers over there in Mexico. I learned to race there. I started racing Super Street in Mexico, and the first year that I raced, I won the Super Street championship. It means a lot to me to be able to do this, and I’m really proud of my team.”
Looking ahead to race day, Cristian is trying to stay amped down.
“I need to be calm,” Cuadra said. “Usually, I get nervous, and I’m trying to learn how to control my nerves. I always talk to Erica before my run because she’s always telling me to relax, and also (Elite Motorsports owner) Richard (Freeman) has been a huge help. I think I’m ready for (race day), but I’m just thinking in my mind that I’m No. 16 qualifier.”
RACERS AMPED FOR MISSION CHALLENGE – Pleased that “the Gatornationals gave us a glimpse that our hard work in the offseason was in the correct direction,” Leah Pruett was more than ready to get to Saturday qualifying.
“We don’t throw the phrase ‘Let’s go get that money’ around the pit for nothing. These extra points will be nice and possibly pay off when it comes down to positions for the Countdown. I want to see my guys be able to get rewarded for their dedication and hard work, and this is just a little help in that direction,” Pruett said.
“Also, racing on Saturday is way cool,” she said. “I love the whole concept. However, qualifying efforts are still priority, so there will be extra strategy mixed with audibles.”
“Every lap matters, whether it’s the beginning or middle of the season. We are always building our database to be able to adjust not only to conditions, but strategy within the conditions to navigate our way to not only a complete run, but a competitive run.”
JR Todd said his Jon Oberhofer-led crew had “been working hard all offseason on getting this DHL GR Supra back up to the top where we think it belongs. We changed pretty much everything but the drive, everything down to the steering wheel. Yeah, it was a good start for us there in Gainesville.” He was runner-up to Matt Hagan but lost his engine just past half-track in the final round.
“It's always a bummer when you go to the final round and don't finish the deal,” Todd said. But he earned a consolation prize in a #2Fast2Tasty Challenge berth.
And Todd said that this weekend’s weather was “definitely going to be throwdown. We're looking at a weather forecast that is almost perfect for so many reasons, but this race ... really does turn into a performance style of contest.”
One factor here at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park – and one that surely will crop up again during the regular season – is that only 16 cars were in the field, at least for Funny Car this time.
And Todd recognized that. He said, “I guess the fortunate thing is there's only 16 cars so everybody makes a show, and that allows you to go out there and be maybe a little more aggressive than needed. But it all depends how you do I think on that first round Friday rolling over to Saturday. Do you shallow stage? Maybe roll it in a little bit? It's a totally different mindset with this added race within a race.”
For him – and his pro colleagues across category lines – it’s all about “any little points that you can grab, whether it's the bonus points and qualifying or the Mission bonus points. It all adds up at the end of the year, and it seems like the last couple seasons coming down to Pomona that the Funny Car championship comes down to those little points.”
Chad Green, Todd’s semifinal-round victim at Gainesville, raised the issue about participants. He hasn’t been one of the usual suspects to reach the semifinals race after race, year after year, so he already has struck a blow for the racers who either are trying to establish themselves in the class. For those just breaking into the class or those racing with a relatively low budget, having a chance to race in the #2Fast2Tasty Challenge is a monumental achievement.
Green said it adds to his growing body of work, not that he particularly needed legitimacy: “At least I hope that they would look at us a little bit that way [as a threat]. I know I'm definitely amongst this group here, [but] especially you would consider me for sure the underdog, because these are some badass dudes and Alexis. And so for them to look at me in that type of way, just it means a lot.”
DeJoria agreed that “being a part of this #2FAST2TASTY thing is going to be incredible. We've had some really good consistent runs during eliminations, but qualifying, we really needed to step it up. We didn't really get down the track every run, but at least we made it in.”
While this newly crafted event runs take place during qualifying, it’s a legitimate race, as well, in announcer Brian Lohnes’ words, “a direct head-to-head competition, maybe a little bit of a warmup act, if you will, for Sunday.” And DeJoria added a bit of spice to the Mission Foods-sponsored program.
“Definitely getting some revenge there, if you can,” she said. “It was a pretty close race (in the Gainesville semifinal against Hagan), but I've definitely got to step it up on my end. My team gives me a great car and it's up to me to get it off the starting line in a timely manner and not hit cones. I did that last year a couple times and lost some really crucial points during the Countdown.” And those are points she could have used.
Hagan was her first-round opponent in the Challenge on Saturday. It was fortunate that he grabbed the tentative No. 5 slot in the 16-car order Friday, because against DeJoria in the first Saturday he crossed the center line and missed his chance to run for the Challenge trophy. Maybe he had a premonition, for he said earlier in thr week, “This #2FAST2TASTY on Saturday, that's crazy because it takes ... You get really one run to qualify and then it's racing. You know what I mean? It[‘s] like we're still qualifying, but to me it's $10,000 or more for my guys that they really count on. That goes a long way. You look at it like ‘That's 500 bucks a piece for those guys.’ That's a car payment.
“I think about that kind of stuff when you go up there and you run these rounds and you want to do what your crew chief wants you to do, but at the end of the day when he turns that screw and he walks away, that's my race car. You know what I mean? It's kind of one of those things where you're a racer and you win races and you do what you got to do to win. But like I said, I think that we have such a competitive group with all the folks in Funny Car and I have so much respect for all the drivers out there. You never can take anyone lightly because that humbleness will kick you in the ass.” It did Saturday for him, as De Joria went on to meet Todd in the final round of the Challenge.
Hagan said, “This whole #2FAST2TASTY changes the dynamic of the game and qualifying. I feel like we're going back to almost like when we had two qualifying runs and you had to make the first one count all the time. It's tough, because you got guys like JR. He's a great leader. I really look up to him on the starting line. And hell, he left on me in the (Gatornationals) finals.
“You own it and you go back and you work on it and you get on the practice tree and you do what you got to do to not let your team down,” he said. “We all have egos out here, so it's kind of one of those things where we just got to go out and bring it and see what we can do.”
Coughlin was ready to participate in the first one of these bonus races, even if it did mean he had to face Glenn in the opening round of it. “I love competitions like the Mission #2Fast2Tasty NHRA Challenge,” Coughlin said. “It’s going to make qualifying on Saturday really exciting for everyone.” It certainly was for him – he won, defeating Anderson in the final.
Glenn said he has had this rematch against Coughlin circled since the moment he lost in Gainesville, because, he said, “I have a very good car right now. Losing to T.J. on my second holeshot loss ever was motivation, to say the least. I’m very eager to get redemption and I’m absolutely thinking about the bonus points that come with a win. Championships have been decided on less, and we have a chance for quite a few championship points with the #2Fast2Tasty Challenge this season.”
Veteran owner-driver Chris McGaha said he was excited about the #2Fast2Tasty Challenge. (“It's going to be very interesting. It’s going to be good,” he said.) But he got a kick out of his father’s take on the bonus program.
“The best is my dad,” Chris McGaha tattled on father Lester McGaha. “When they came out with it, I was explaining it to him. He's like, ‘Ah, this doesn't make any sense to me.’ Then last week he's running around talking about how much money you can win and all the points you can get. I think he's more excited than anybody at this point.
"Yeah, and I guess it's good because Saturday, sometimes Q4 is such a throwaway. I mean, it really is. Most of the time it's too hot,” he said. “So it gives incentive.”
The Pro Stock Motorcycle class also will participate in the Mission #2FAST2TASTY Challenge when it resumes its schedule April 28-30 at Charlotte.
Bob Tasca III thought one of the biggest perks of securing his 10th career No. 1 Funny Car start would be having a bye run in the first round.
He figured that Jim Campbell would not make the show because his run in Saturday’s first qualifying session was disqualified because it didn’t meet the weight requirement, and he was unable to take advantage of his final chance to break into the 16-car field because of a staging-lane mishap.
Campbell’s car rolled up against the back of the team’s tow vehicle. Thankfully, no one was injured -- no one was in the immediate area of the incident.
However, the front of the body was bent up significantly enough and the body suffered a crack just above the wheelwell. So Campbell had no choice but to skip the third overall and final qualifying session.
Race officials inserted Campbell into the lineup for Sunday eliminations because he made legitimate attempts to qualify. So he’ll be the No. 16 starter, set for a match-up with Tasca.
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK - NO RACER HAPPY TO SEE PHOENIX STOP DISAPPEAR FROM TOUR; HULL, CREW CHIEF GUGER JOIN FORCES FOR NEW ADVENTURE; SALINAS RESERVED ABOUT PENALTY; MARONEY FACING LAST HURRAH
FAREWELL, PHOENIX – Alexis De Joria called it “somber.” Matt Hagan said, “It saddens my heart.” Leah Pruett called the venue “magical.” Cruz Pedregon, Tony Schumacher, and Ron Capps, who’s taking a trip down Memory Lane, all used the word “bittersweet.”
Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, formerly Firebird Raceway, is hosting its final NHRA Arizona Nationals this weekend here in the Phoenix suburb of Chandler. Its final chapter is another unfortunate-for-the-sport story of urban encroachment and land-value eruption. Commercial development at this site has won out over drag-racing tradition. And NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series drivers want to give it a proper farewell – and they all want to be a footnote to history by winning the final Arizona Nationals.
Funny Car’s DeJoria said, “Racing this last year at Wild Horse Pass will be a somber one. Between the annual NHRA Arizona Nationals event, and all of the years we went there for preseason testing, I feel like I’ve spent a lot of time at that facility. The Phoenix track holds a lot of great memories for me, especially since that’s where I won my first professional nitro Funny Car event back in 2014. I’ll miss going there every year, and of course, will miss all of our wonderful fans.
Maybe no one likes the facility more than Top Fuel racer Leah Pruett.
“I usually say that it’s magical for me and don’t have an answer,” she said, trying to explain her success at this venue. “However, now that time has passed and I’ve had success with different teams and crew chiefs in different stages of the lifespan of the various teams, I think it comes down to track time.
“As a driver, I’ve seen that tree a lot, and I am not only familiar with it, but love the sun scope of how it falls and I feel at home. Performance for the cars I’ve raced have excelled because we had the most data from that track as we typically test there every preseason before that event. It was the place we knew the most and worked at going extremely fast, and the results showed.”
Pruett, who won here twice against Brittany Force in two of only three all-woman final round match-ups in the sport’s history (Shirley Muldowney defeated Lucille Lee in the first), said, “I have so many great memories at Phoenix. From trick-or-treating between pits at 10 years old, dressed up as a ’70s girl, to testing Jack Beckman’s Funny Car on a Monday in 2008. They had just won the day before, and they had to test. That was the same day I met Boogs (Chris Afflerbach), who now works on my car. I got to film a Hoonigan video at testing one year, which now has over five million views. I’ve advanced to many final rounds there.
“But, my most favorite memory was being rushed in the lanes for the final round against Brittany in 2016,” she said. “I didn’t know I was racing her until getting suited, because we were not having the smoothest day. I’m sitting in the back seat of the van, had just gotten fully geared-up, and struck a 1-2-3 jab at the back of the headrest of the 2010 falling-apart Astro van that we had for a tow vehicle. Punching is part of my pregame, because I love boxing. Well, I jabbed so hard that a spring or support for the headrest broke, and it hurt my right hand. But I didn’t care, because I knew I was David up against Goliath for this final round and wanted this win more than I had ever wanted anything. It was at this moment that fist pumps became my thing. And the results showed. The win is still all-time for me. Seeing that final win light and trying to comprehend that we really did it. But when it comes to moments, it’s the pre-final round ritual and what it stands for that lives on.”
Tony Schumacher has Top Fuel performance milestones at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, and he said this weekend’s race “will be a bittersweet race. Going here for the last time is going to be tough. We were the first team to ever run 330.23 mph, and that is where we did it. Some great memories, for sure, and I would love to make one more amazing one this weekend with our SCAG team.”
He leads the Top Fuel class in victories here, with five (2000, 2002, 2005, 2013, 2015), and leads in No. 1 qualifiers, with six. He was the first to crack the 330-mph barrier (330.23-mph) during the 1999 national event. He also reset both ends of his career-best numbers during the 2018 event (3.649-second elapsed time, 336.57-mph speed). He also reached the final round in 2012.
Capps, known for his three Funny Car championships, made his professional debut here in the Top Fuel class in 1995.
“It’s bittersweet, knowing that this is likely to be our last Arizona Nationals event. I used to go to that track growing up as a crew member, working on several different alcohol dragsters, Blaine and Alan Johnson’s car. Throughout my career, it was the first race I entered when I was a rookie in Top Fuel, driving for Roger Primm,” Capps said. “We actually qualified and ran Joe Amato first round, and I won my first round of competition against the legendary Joe Amato at that event. I remember we had just barely gotten the car together and got it to the race. It was my rookie year, and I hadn’t even driven a car to the finish line under power prior to that.”
Then, he said, “when I got hired by Don Prudhomme to drive his Funny Car, Phoenix was where we tested and I made my first runs in a nitro Funny Car. It’s pretty incredible to fast forward and look at where we are now. I’ve been fortunate enough to get a couple of wins there and race for legendary sponsors and team owners, so it’s been pretty special. Phoenix has always been one of those events where we would take our family, and make a whole trip out of it, so it’s more than just a race for me.”
And he could add to his Phoenix lore this weekend. His next final-round appearance will be his 10th since he formed his own team two offseasons ago.
Capps’ fellow Funny Car racer Tim Wilkerson lamented the loss of yet another national-event track since 2018 following Englishtown, Atlanta, Houston, and for awhile Joliet.
Wilkerson said, “It's real sad to see us lose a racetrack, especially this particular one. Hopefully we can find another facility that was as neat as that one. It’s a great area with a strong drag-racing fan base. We won there in 2016, beat John Force in the finals, and it was the last race I ran with a car that I had for actually 10 seasons. So that’s one of those memories that will always stand out to me about the Phoenix track.”
Antron Brown earned his Top Fuel license here in 2008. The Top Fuel winner in 2009, 2012, and 2014, he clocked his career-best E.T. (3.667 seconds) at this facility in 2017.
He said, “It’s sad to think that this will be our last race in Phoenix. I remember Phoenix from the very start. That’s where I got my Top Fuel license with David Powers. I’ve got a few wins here, too. Phoenix has always been a good racetrack. We’ve kicked off a lot of our seasons at Wild Horse Pass with preseason testing for many years. We have a huge group of Matco Tools distributors and their families out there who always come out in full force to support us. So, this last race has a lot of meaning for us. This is our second race of the season, and we want to have a good showing out there this weekend. We’re going to have our heads down, and we’re going in ready to rock and give it all we’ve got. Hopefully, we can leave on a good note and get one last win to add to our Phoenix memory bank.”
After giving Tony Stewart Racing its first Funny Car trophy of the season at the Gatornationals two weeks ago, a confident Matt Hagan turned nostalgic when he thought about what Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park has meant to him.
Of course, he likes the racetrack at which he was top qualifier last season and where he has advanced to the finals in five of his past nine starts.
Hagan said, “We used to test at Phoenix a lot, so that that’s given us a lot of data to reference. It’s also pretty cool here this time of year, which the car responds well to. The track maintenance is also really good, and you can apply a lot of power to it. Dickie (crew chief Venables) likes to run in drier conditions like that.”
In the end, he said, “It saddens my heart to think we won’t be back to Phoenix. I really enjoy the whole area, plus the Radford Racing School is out there. I’ve always enjoyed Phoenix, so it’s tough that it’ll be our last season racing at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park. Let’s put our names in the history books and go win the last one in our Dodge Direct Connection Charger SRT Hellcat Funny Car.”
QUIET AS THUNDER - The potential of Doug Kalitta’s Top Fuel dragster is unlimited, especially with renowned crew chiefs Alan Johnson and Brian Husen.
Kalitta’s Mac Tools Kalitta Motorsports machine has glimpses of success in 2022 and began the 2023 season by reaching the semifinals of the season-opening Gatornationals on March 12 in Gainesville, Fla.
Kalitta hopes to take the next step into the winner’s circle this weekend at the Arizona Nationals near Phoenix.
He took a baby step toward reaching that goal by snaring the provisional No. 1 qualifying spot with a 3.679-second elapsed time at 330.23 mph lap on Friday.
“Earlier in the day, I was sitting there talking to Alan and Brian, and they said they didn’t think it would run a 3.64, but a 3.67, we will probably be able to do that,” Kalitta said. “Then, we go out there and ran a 3.67, and that was pretty cool. My guys have been working their tails off on this thing, and we are super hungry to make it happen. No better place to do it than here. We love coming to Phoenix.”
During Kalitta’s semifinal effort at the Gators, he made a blistering track-record run of 3.646-second pass at 333.82 mph in his first-round win over Spencer Massey, and he would love to keep continue to keep posting those numbers.
“Obviously, with Alan Johnson and Brian (Husen) and all my guys on that Mac Tools car, we have been steadily improving since we started testing, and it has been very encouraging,” Kalitta said. “(In) testing, we ran a couple of 67s shutting it off, so I was like, let’s get racing and make sure we are doing it when it counts. It is pretty exciting for me for us to be able to run like we have been running so far.”
If Kalitta’s No. 1 qualifying position holds, it would be the 52nd of his career. He’s aiming to win his 50th career NHRA national event Wally on Sunday. A year ago, Kalitta finished 10th in the points standings, highlighted by four semifinal efforts.
“Last year was just one of those years where the car, for whatever reason, just wasn’t happy and wasn’t responding to what we’re doing,” Kalitta said. “It was a long year. I think all the changes and everything we have made have been paying off. You just have to take it when you can get it and hopefully stay on a nice roll.”
Kalitta acknowledged driving with a canopy has been fun so far.
“It is really nice,” he said. “I tell people it is like closing your sunroof. It is comfortable. It is hard to say aerodynamically what it is doing, but it is quiet.”
A SOLID REBOUND - Simple was good for nitro Funny Car driver Blake Alexander and his team owner Jim Head on Friday.
While most all drivers struggled to get down the track in Q1, Alexander clocked a solid 3.927-second elapsed time at 322.50 mph to claim the provisional No. 1 qualifying spot at the Arizona Nationals near Phoenix.
“A lot of times when you come to this track, there has been a lot of preseason testing here and lots of knowledge and a lot of people prepping the track and taking care of it,” Alexander said. “We kind of came out here (Friday) with the mindset that we didn’t do that good on Friday in Gainesville (at the season-opening Gatornationals). In fact, we lit the car on fire, and we wanted to just go down the track, so we did that, and it turned out to be a nice ending for us.”
If Alexander’s time holds through Saturday’s two qualifying sessions, it would be his first No. 1 qualifying spot of his career. His career includes stints in Funny Car and Top Fuel and back to Funny Car, highlighted by his two wins in Top Fuel in Norwalk, Ohio, and Sonoma, Calif., in 2018.
“It feels good,” said Alexander about his Friday run. “We do this to have good things happen, and we work really, really hard. I don’t think people realize how hard everyone works out here and when you have a bad weekend, you work extra hard. We are happy for Pronto and Head Contractors and everyone we work with to feed this car what it needs. We have what it needs, and we need to keep going forward.”
At the Gators in Gainesville, Fla., Alexander qualified No. 11 and lost in the first round to J.R. Todd on March 12.
“I went to the final round in Gainesville last year, and no one really remembered it by the time we got to the Countdown,” Alexander said. “We are fortunate that we had some time to recover (after the Gators this year) and we have a new car and a whole new setup, actually. We created it so it would be more conducive to go down the track and now we have to figure out how to get it to go down the track fast all the time like some of the top guys do.”
Alexander, Chad Green (3.952 seconds), and Terry Haddock (4.044 seconds) were the only drivers with times quicker than five seconds in Friday’s Q1 session.
“It is going to be warmer (Saturday) when we run just by the timing, and I also think the track will get better, and people will be able to scoot down there better in the last session. It is a good starting point for us. We are not pounding our chests or anything, but it is a good start to the weekend.”
Alexander did imagine what it would be like if he could get his first career No. 1 qualifier and his inaugural national event victory in Funny Car.
“That’s why I wake up at 4 or 5 in the morning every day and work really hard and try to find money and work out and take care of everything in my life so that I can do that,” Alexander said. “That’s what I live for, and I would like to do it.”
SALINAS’ RESPONSE CONCISE – Gatornationals Top Fuel winner Mike Salinas was relatively tight-lipped regarding his reaction to being docked 20 points for an alleged rules infraction at the season opener earlier this month. The NHRA Technical Department’s post-race evaluation, officials said, showed Salinas’ Scrappers Racing dragster registered under the minimum weight standard.
The decision allowed runner-up Steve Torrence to assume a 16-point lead in the standings after the season opener.
According to a Competition Plus source, the Salinas team received incorrect information and made changes based on that incorrect information in an attempt to comply with the rules.
Jeffrey Young, the sanctioning body’s vice-president of marketing and communications said, "The NHRA tech department made a mathematical error in weighing the car.” Nevertheless, Salinas received neither his points back nor his status as points leader. But he is permitted to appeal the decision.
Salinas declined to comment on the issue immediately. However, he said Friday, “The best way to say this: Our car is going to weigh at this race the same as it weighed in Gainesville. That’s all I’m going to say. In defense of my guys – (crew chief) Rob Flynn, Aron Cave, myself, all my crew – that car will weigh exactly what it weighed in Gainesville.”
He spoke as if he simply wanted to put the incident behind him, saying, “I don’t think anything will change. It’s just an anomaly on the NHRA’s side. We’ll just leave it at that. It’ll all come out in the wash.”
THE AMERICAN DREAM - Cristian Cuadra was the surprise of the first session of Pro Stock qualifying Friday afternoon at the Arizona Nationals. The young driver rocketed his Corral Boots Ford Mustang to the top of the charts with a sizzling 6.552 at over 210 miles per hour to place him on the pole at the end of Friday's lone session. Cuadra, who has a final-round appearance to his credit in his short career, is hoping to hang on and capture his first yellow hat for being the number one qualifier.
“When I saw my time slip, I was excited but I thought it wasn't going to be No. 1 because the fast cars, Erica [Enders], Greg [Anderson], and T.J. [Troy Coughlin Jr.] all those cars are always really fast,” Cuadra said. “I was really, really amazed. Hopefully, I can keep it for tomorrow. I'm really excited. I really want to be the first Mexican to be No. 1. That's something important for me. We want to make history in Mexico, and we're already making it.”
Nipping on Cuadra's heels not far behind is young Kyle Koretsky, who qualified second with a stellar 6.55 of his own. Koretsky's run would be just two thousandths slower than Cuadra's, as he would lay down a solid 6.554 at over 210 miles per hour as well.
Just two thousandths of a second behind Koretsky is his KB Titan teammate, Dallas Glenn, who currently sits in third. Glenn, racing in the first ever Pro Stock edition of the Mission Foods "2Fast 2Tasty" challenge tomorrow afternoon, recorded a 6.556 at over 210 miles per hour to round out the drivers to earn the mini bonus for the top three quickest runs of the round.
The final two sessions of Pro Stock qualifying, along with the Mission Foods 2Fast 2Tasty challenge are set for 12 pm and 3 pm PT Saturday afternoon. - Darin Williams
HULL, GUGER GREAT MATCH – Buddy Hull’s first Top Fuel pass of the year Friday evening essentially was a test pass. He might not know how quickly he’ll get the Methanol Moonshine/Vertex Roofing Dragster up to speed, but he does know one thing: He’s grateful to have drag-racing veteran Mike Guger as his crew chief. And Guger is equally thrilled that, in his words, Hull “rescued me from the scrap heap.”
Guger hardly was rusting on the scrap heap. He has pushed himself in the gap years since February 2016, when he earned his first victory as a tuner and Leah Pruett claimed her first as a Top Fuel driver right here at this venue. He has kept up with the latest mechanical advancements and has kept in touch with Kurt Elliott and other crew chiefs.
“I do my best to keep abreast. And I tried really hard to just keep thinking about it, because if you let it go, then you are going to lose it. So I just tried to think about it as much as I could, to keep up with all the trends and things,” Guger said. “It’s stressful, but I'm happy that I came out here. I go off of my old information, but nothing's changed that much since 2015, 2016.
“It's hard to predict. I hope I can get back on the horse,” he said. “Things are tough, because the track’s going to be so good. The air's going to be so good. Guys are going to be ripping. So I don't think I could run 3.60s. I'm hoping to just get this thing into the mid- to high-.70s. I'd be as pleased as I can be if I could do that.”
Guger said he hadn’t dwelled on that triumphant day in 2016, when Pruett beat Brittany Force in the final round – in what turned out to be the last race for Bob Vandergriff Racing, as it abruptly folded.
“I think I've talked to him about that more than he's talked about it,” Hull said. ”Mike's very focused. He's extremely into my race car right now, into the ins and outs of it. It's a great opportunity for him to come back to the place where he won his, yeah. He won his first Top Fuel (trophy) here with Leah sitting in the seat of the car and him tuning it. So he loves this track, to say the least.”
Hull called Guger “a great guy” and said, “I'm happy to have him. What he brings to the table is so much information and knowledge from so many years at the track. And he's also just a great guy to be around. Yes, Mike's very positive, and he's so excited to be back out here. It's just a win-win for both of us. We're both pumped about it.
“We get along real well. He's the coolest guy. He really is. It's a blessing to have Mike,” Hull said. “Some people ‘forgot’ about Mike, right? And they shouldn't have, because he's one of the best out here. He's got more experience than probably half the crew chiefs out here right now. And Mike just got himself in a spot where wasn't a crew chief or wasn't out here for a while, but I believe in him.
“And he hasn't fallen too far off the map with the knowledge of what's going on out here in the modern day, if you will. It changes quickly. He's continued to stay up with it through his friends, and he's picked off where he left off. He's had the help of some of his friends to get him caught up in some areas of the car in which (things) have changed that he didn't know about. But I think Mike is as good as there is out here. And I think for he and I to team up and do what we're doing is the ideal for both him and me.”
Guger said he’s buoyed by the response he had gotten from his peers and friends in the sport: “Once I got here, I started just thinking of all the places I've run good at and run bad at – and I've always had good success here. Talking to people, the support is unbelievable. The guys, they're not going to let me fail.
“Got a really good group of guys that work on it,” he said of the dragster. “They're all part-timers. Last week was the first time I worked with all of 'em. And they're all mechanics.”
And for Guger, this is a mutual-admiration deal.
“He's been a prince to work with,” Guger said of the owner-driver. “I came in just kind of looked at everything, and every change I've wanted to make, he's agreed to: ‘Whatever you need. Whatever you need.’ And I just feel like I'm spending my own money. I'm just trying to be careful and not spend too much, look out for him because I want him to go all year. I don't want to blow all this money here in two races. Then we can't race anymore because everything's all wrecked. We're going to Vegas. Vegas will be next. And I think Chicago will be the next" after Vegas.
These days, Guger is busier than ever.
“I've got that Funny Car that I built for Funny Car Chaos that I've never run.”
It belongs to Robert Mills, his 9-to-5 boss at the Leander, Texas, precision sheet metal and CNC machine shop. (“I run the CNC machine,” Guger said.)
The car – “Speed Racer” – is something Mills has allowed Guger to tinker with and enjoy on the racetrack.
“I work for him. He agreed to come out and work for me. My work schedule is I work four days a week, four 10-hour days, Monday through Thursday. He was kind enough to let me do this. So that was what originally got me down here, this car,” he said.
Early Friday mornings he’ll button up Mills’ shop, and drive two-plus hours to Hull’s shop at Alvarado, Texas, south of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. He’ll stay there all day Friday and Saturday, work until about 8 or 9 p.m., then Sunday leave for home at a decent hour – so he can be at work Monday morning at 6.
“I've been doing this for nine or 10 weeks now, and I haven't had a day off,” he said.
And that’s how he prefers it right now. He genuinely is tickled to be pouring such effort into all of those endeavors.
“Buddy's the one who said we're going to take that car out. So I'm happy about that, because I hate seeing the thing just sit there. It's a nice car, and it'll run. It's basically a big show-off car. It's got big fuel pump, two max lockup clutch. It's got all the right stuff. It should run. I would hope it would run at least 3.40, maybe 3.30s” in the eighth-mile Funny Car Chaos format.
He said, “I've never really driven it. In 1981, I drove the original Speed Racer, and I got my license. I had a license. I mean, now a good door car could beat that thing. It held a national record at 5.89 and it was pretty fast. It was pretty fast. I'm sure this thing is just in another world. And if I can't drive it, we'll find somebody that can, but I'm comfortable with it.”
WHO’S THE MOST PRACTICAL OF THEM ALL? – Jim Maroney has a mirror in his garage in nearby Gilbert, Arizona. And to him, it’s no ordinary mirror. It has a special inscription on it.
The veteran Top Fuel racer remembers having it in his bedroom as a teenager and knowing all those years it’s something sentimental. The wording reads, “1985 Inaugural Fall Nationals Firebird, Arizona.”
So even though he plans to part ways with all of his equipment, and give up Top Fuel racing after this event, Maroney said Friday that he looked at that mirror and decided, “There’s no way I can not run” here this weekend. Like yet another Arizona track, Maroney will vanish from the landscape.
“Everything's for sale. It's been for sale for about six months. You can't buy used stuff and put it together for what I'm offering up for sale. My business wasn't great this last year,” he said, “and I'm not one that's going to go into major debt to keep racing. And so here we are. Main reason I'm running this one, only real reason, is because I live 12 miles away and I'm not a good spectator and it's the last race at Wild Horse/Firebird.
“I have a Top Fuel operation sitting in my driveway. But I’ve got to be here to compete at the last event,” Maroney said. “So that's why we're here and we're doing it with all family. It would be easier with my crew guys, but we're doing it with all family and whatever happens happens.”