2023 NHRA IN-N-OUT FINALS- EVENT NOTEBOOK
FINAL NOTEBOOK - CHAMPIONS CROWNED IN A THRILLING SEASON-FINALE
1 – Top Fuel championship goes to Doug Kalitta – finally! - With points leader Steve Torrence exiting in the semifinals, the Top Fuel championship came down to a winner-take-all final round that pitted Doug Kalitta and Leah Pruett, neither of whom had ever finished the season No. 1 in the sport's premier category.
Both Kalitta and Pruett had earned championships before. Kalitta was the 1994 USAC National Sprint Car champion. Pruett has titles in the NHRA’s Nostalgia Funny Car and Factory Stock Showdown.
But both eyed that Top Fuel title, Kalitta for many more years than she. Nevertheless, Pruett, who eliminated Torrence in the semifinal, wanted to join teammate Matt Hagan on the champions' podium to give Tony Stewart Racing a double-nitro championship. They both had won at Dallas in mid-October, and taking that accomplishment to a higher level would have given the team boss a third major-series championship in eight days. Cole Custer brought Stewart the first Nov. 4 with his NASCAR Xfinity Series crown.
More so, though, it would cap a gritty climb to the pinnacle of the Top Fuel mountain after tough breaks and a lot of hustle. And it would come at her home track, which already had produced a hauler full of personal and professional memories.
And for Kalitta, the Mac Tools Toyota Dragster driver who had finished as runner-up six times, he knew tuner Alan Johnson could bring him that championship that would shake the stigma of no titles in his 26-year career.
In the end, the day belonged to Kalitta, who teamed with tuner extraordinaire Alan Johnson at the beginning of 2022. They endured a winless first season together, but this year, Kalitta came alive at the outset of the Countdown – as the No. 6 seed – with a pair of victories at Reading and Charlotte. That vaulted him into the championship conversation for the first time all year.
And Kalitta delivered in his 587th start, registering his first title and Johnson’s 13th. Johnson also has won three times with Gary Scelzi, five times with Tony Schumacher, and once each with Larry Dixon, Del Worsham, Shawn Langdon, and Brittany Force.
“It was such a big relief after that run [against Pruett]. It's hard to believe,” Kalitta said. “I dream about this opportunity when we're here. It was definitely on my bucket list. So, just really, hats off to Alan, and Brian [crew chief Husen], and everybody on my team -- and obviously, all the fans and support that I've gotten.”
He said because his visor was taped to block the sun, didn’t even get to see the win light come on in his lane. But he knew the victory was his when he pulled off the track and saw the Safety Safari and others rooting him on.
“It’s incredible the way the points thing worked out to come down to that last run,” Kalitta said. “I just stayed focused. It was obviously a big round, and it played out just perfectly. I got to the end of the track and was like, ‘I cannot believe these guys are still looking at me and high fiving’ because unfortunately, I missed the win light. Everybody was down there, and it was something I looked forward to all my life. It was a hell of a drag race, and it was nice to get the win.
“It’s going to take awhile for this to settle in,” Kalitta added. “At the end of the run, I was so relieved. I’ve been trying to win this thing for years, and it’s really hard to believe. I’m kind of speechless at the moment, but it’ll settle in here after the banquet" Monday night.
Clutching the trophy and hearing the rousing cheers of the crowd that gathered around the post-race podium, the mild-mannered Kalitta cut loose a little bit and said, “So, yeah, we're taking this baby back to Ypsilanti!” The team’s shop is at Ypsilanti, Mich., where he also operates Kalitta Charters.
The trophies, he said, will shine among the two his late cousin Scott Kalitta earned in Top Fuel in 1994-95 and the honors that have gone to his uncle and team owner Connie Kalitta.
“We’ve had a great run being out here, and this championship has definitely been on my ‘things to do list.’ My cousin Scott won this thing a couple of times, so I’ve always grown up in his shadow, trying to accomplish what he accomplished. So it was definitely on my bucket list to get a Top Fuel title. It’s definitely a big relief.”
Furthermore, the 52-time winner said he wanted to make sure he at least won a race with Alan Johnson, if for no other reason than to preserve his reputation: “It’d be bad to be with Alan Johnson for two years and not win a race.”
He has three this season in five final-round appearances.
Six-time Pro Stock titlist Erica Enders said Sunday evening, “He’s been the people’s champion for years, and today he’s the world champion.”
When Kalitta first competed in 1998, he envisioned NHRA President Dallas Gardner handing him that championship trophy. Then Tom Compton had the chance, then Peter Clifford. But others kept shutting out Kalitta, some with seemingly impossible last-minute heroics. And finally, NHRA boss Glen Cromwell got the honors of making the popular presentation Sunday.
Connie Kalitta called the moment “awesome” and said, “I’m so happy for him and his wife [Josie]. I’m so happy for the crew.”
Doug Kalitta said his 80-something uncle “didn’t get in the mosh pit [a signature Kalitta Motorsports celebration], but the video will be priceless.”
And so will this memory, which he has 116 days to savor until the 2024 Mission Foods Drag Racing Series season starts.
Paul Doleshal, group manager, motorsports for Toyota Motor North America, said, “Doug Kalitta is one of the classiest and most-talented racers NHRA has ever seen and to be a part of his first championship is an incredible honor for Toyota Racing. We’ve loved every moment of working with Doug and Kalitta Motorsports, and this championship is another feat we've accomplished together. We look forward to celebrating with Doug, his family, and the entire team, and we couldn’t be happier for them to have achieved this long-awaited title.”
2 – Hagan, rivals all lose in Round 2, but Hagan claims Funny Car title - Funny Car racer Bob Tasca III said it during qualifying, referring to himself and fellow championship contenders Matt Hagan and Robert Hight: “Forget the Big Three. It’s the Big 19 right now that can take any one of the Big Three out.”
That was prophetic, because that’s what happened in Sunday’s second round.
Cruz Pedregon, Blake Alexander and Chad Green, respectively, eliminated Tasca, Hagan and Hight to determine the 2023 king of the class. “The Big Three” fell like dominoes, and the decision came down to the match-up between Hight and Green – all while Hagan stewed at the top end and Hight fretted on the starting line, sitting through a lengthy oildown clean-up.
Hagan still had the points lead, but if Hight beat Green, the John Force Racing president and fellow three-time champion would become the first four-time Funny Car titlist since Force in 1994. Hight lost traction toward the finish line against Green to hand Hagan the distinction.
“I jumped in the car over there with Chad Green and I told him, ‘Flip your visor up, because I'm going to kiss you on the lips,'" Hagan said. "And Chad, I definitely owe him a beer.”
For Hagan it was sweet relief, with perhaps a touch of divine intervention, for as he waited for the Hight-Green run, he wasn’t sure which way the results would swing.
“More than likely, Robert, they don't stumble. They runnered-up last year, and that's how it goes a lot of times. Two of my championships out of three, I runnered-up and then come back and won it. So that's just how fate is sometimes. But we'll sit here and wait. I'm not going to sit up here and wish bad on nobody, man. Everybody's trying hard, and the best man wins out here. We didn't get it done, and it falls on us. There's nobody to blame but us.”
He was blaming himself but at the same time sending up a prayer to his mother, whom he lost earlier this year. “I was doin’ some prayin’,” he said. “I never prayed to my mom before, but I said, ‘I don’t know what you and my brother [Kyle, who passed away several years ago] are doing up there, but I sure could use a little help.”
As Hagan stood there, “We really want to win this championship. You hate to sit here and hope somebody else loses. You want to go out there and just turn four win lights on and get it done.” Later he stressed that “That’s not my style of racing. It’s about my body of work.”
But Hight did stumble -- barely, but enough for Green to advance to the semifinals. And help came in the form of tire smoke for Hight.
That twist of events gave Hagan’s team owner, Tony Stewart, his second championship in eight days, counting Cole Custer’s NASCAR Xfinity Series title last weekend at Phoenix. And it made Hagan the fourth to record four or more Funny Car championships. He joined John Force, Kenny Bernstein, and Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, all three of whom were at Pomona this weekend.
If Tasca’s pre-race words were visionary, so were Hight’s.
Hight had alluded to “The Pedregon Factor” before the weekend began, recalling that last year, Cruz Pedregon – in Hight’s words – “comes from nowhere and screws everything up – all the points, everything” by winning this race. Now Tasca understands what Hight meant.
“The Pedregon Factor” struck again Sunday, as the Snap-on Tools-sponsored veteran defeated Tasca, leaving Hagan and Hight to battle for the championship.
Tasca, who said, ‘It was a career year for me,” said that for his Todd Okuhara- and Aaron Brooks-led team, “The best is yet to come.”
Hight, who lost the championship by a mere three points to Ron Capps in 2022, reached out to Hagan directly and on the public-address system.
He said, “Congratulations to Matt Hagan. They’ve been there all year. We’ve been here just at the end. I’m still proud of my team.”
Hagan closed his season with six victories in eight final rounds and a 41-15 record in eliminations.
3 – Enders aces first-round match-up to secure her sixth Pro Stock championship - After she won her first-round match Sunday against Fernando Cuadra to secure her sixth Pro Stock championship, Erica Enders said, “First and foremost, I want to give the Good Lord all the glory. He turns every single mess into a message.
“And that's exactly what the season started off as – a complete and utter disaster,” she said. “It took us seven races to figure out our issue. The message this year is tenacity and consistency and digging through all of the crap and just prevailing when it matters.”
Enders lost to Matt Hartford in the semifinal round Sunday, but her record-extending championship achievement affirmed her never-quit approach on the racetrack.
She languished as a backmarker at the beginning of the season as she lost in the opening round at four of the first six races and never got past the quarterfinals. Then, in June at Tennessee’s Bristol Dragway, Enders won and pointed herself in the correct direction. She started to move up through the order from 14th place and started the Countdown as the No. 3-ranked driver. She finally grabbed the points lead following the St. Louis race in October. After that, Enders won the next two races, at Dallas and Las Vegas, to lock into another classic championship battle against Greg Anderson.
“I owe my guys all the credit in the world. I have to thank my guys for that. Richard Freeman's a tremendous leader that gave us all such a great opportunity, starting in 2014, here at Elite Motorsports. it's through God that I can do all things,” Enders said. “But it takes a team of people to do it here and I couldn't do it without them.
“As a little girl in a Jr. Dragster, this is my dream. I've not only been able to accomplish it once, but we've been able to accomplish it six times,” Enders said. "It’s us against the world. And today, ‘us’ won.”
With that, Enders -- the most successful woman in all of motorsports – completed her third set of back-to-back titles. She also dominated in 2014-15, 2019-20, and 2022. The Melling / Johnson’s Horsepowered Garage Chevrolet Camaro driver matched retired class legend Warren Johnson’s six series crowns. The late Bob Glidden earned 10 in Pro Stock.
Jim Campbell, Chevrolet U.S. vice-president of performance and motorsports, said,. “I vividly remember Erica’s first win at Route 66 Raceway in Joliet in 2012. It’s so exciting to see her capture the sixth championship of her career today. She’s a great racer and a recordbreaker. Her wins and championships are a result of her skill, hard work, dedication, preparation, and teamwork. Congratulations to Erica, Richard Freeman, Elite Motorsports and the Johnson’s Horsepowered Garage Melling Chevrolet team.”
4– Chad Green claims his first Funny Car victory in family-themed final - With the three title-eligible drivers gone in the second round, the Final Four in the Funny Car bracket didn’t include ‘The Big Three’ of Matt Hagan, Bob Tasca III and Robert Hight.
First-time winner Chad Green might not have been one of the “Big Three.” but he said he already considers himself one of the “Big Dogs” because he always has high expectations for himself and his Bond Coat, Inc. Ford team.
And that Big Dog had a big day Sunday. Not only did he bring Ford a victory in an all-Mustang final round, but Green also did it against Tim Wilkerson, his own crew chief Daniel Wilkerson’s father and the man who guided him in his transition to the Funny Car class from the Pro Mod ranks. What’s more, his victory came on the day he doubled in the winners circle with his own son, Hunter Green, who earned the Top Alcohol Dragster final.
“It's just been an amazing weekend,” Green said. “First off, it's been an amazing season. This has been a dream season for us. I couldn't be more proud of my guys. They've really come a long way in the last few years, and they've stuck with me. We've been trying all year to get this Wally. We've been close a few times, but it's just been an amazing season. I can't think of a better way that you could top off a season, ending it like this.
“But I just can't say enough about our season. It's been so amazing. You could have never drawn it up like this. This season has been a great season, we surprised a lot of people, and to cap it off with a win is awesome,” he said.
5 – Pro Stock winner Aaron Stanfield - With wife Joleigh prepared to deliver their second child at any minute in Bossier City, Louisiana, Aaron Stanfield drove his Janac Brothers / Melling Engine Parts Camaro to the Elite Motorsports-affiliated team’s first victory of the season and eighth overall. He beat Matt Hartford in the finals.
"This is really incredible,” Stanfield said. “Thank you to my wife. She told me, ‘If you’re going to go, you’d better win.’ We’ve struggled a bit this year. We’ve been waiting for that win to come, so to get it here at this last race, it’s awesome. Given everything else that’s going on in my life, it’s perfect timing.”
Stanfield said his offseason will start with helping take acre of the new baby, who joins their daughter Oakleigh Raelynn.
“I’ll be changing diapers, for sure,” he said. “Just to go into the offseason knowing you and your team did a really good job to win the last race, it definitely makes you hungry to get going again and start racing. We’ll be itching to get back in the driver’s seat and looking forward to Gainesville.” That’s where the 2024 season will begin in March with Florida’s famous Gatornationals.
“It’s very special to get this done at the last race. I’ve got to thank all my guys who work on my hot rod. They give me the best thing they can give me. I’m just very thankful.”
7 – Torrence’s ‘Drive For Five’ In Neutral Until Next Season - Steve Torrence said Saturday he was confident, especially after earning the No. 1 qualifying position with a dragster he decided was “the quickest and fastest race car I’ve ever had,” that he didn’t think he could lose the Top Fuel lead.
But a dropped cylinder in his semifinal match against Leah Pruett derailed his chance to earn his fifth championship in six seasons for the Capco Contractors dragster team.
However, Torrence seemed to take in stride the fact he finished in second place in the final standings, 48 points behind champion and event winner Doug Kalitta and nine ahead of race runner-up Leah Pruett.
“I like Leah, and that team did a great job this year,” Torrence said, “but I got to admit that after we lost, I was rooting for Doug. He’s been out here chasing a championship for a lot of years, and he’s just a good guy.
"We didn’t get the championship, but I’m so proud of these CAPCO boys and what they were able to do this year. We’ve made big changes to our program the last two years, but we finished the season with one badass race car."
He said he was “a little disappointed, sure, but I’m excited about next season with the Mission Foods people coming on board in a big way. Camping World, Pep Boys, the PRO Superstar Shootout ... it's all good.”
9 – Capps looking for trophy with third series sponsor in 2024 - Outgoing Funny Car champion Ron Capps, not a factor in the chase this fall or in this race because of a first-round upset loss to eventual finalist Tim Wilkerson, said crew chief Dean “Guido” Antonelli “has a lot of really cool things that we tested here that are going to make us better next year.” And he said his goal is to parlay that into a special personal goal.
“I've got two of the big trophies at home. One says ‘Mello Yello’ and one says ‘Camping World.’ That's two of the last eras of the NHRA series sponsors. We're going to try to get us a ‘Mission Foods’ championship trophy,” he said.
“We just stumbled in the Countdown, and you can't do that,” Capps said. He said he’s looking ahead: “There’s so much going on in the sport. It's exciting going into 2024 with Mission Foods.”
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK - Competition Plus' Top-10 News Items For Friday's NHRA In-N-Out Finals
1 – Gaige Herrera clinches the Pro Stock Motorcycle championship - After a near demolition of the Pro Stock Motorcycle class in 2023, all Gaige Herrera had to do was stage his Vance & Hines Suzuki Hayabusa entry at the season-ending In-N-Out Burger NHRA Finals to clinch the series championship.
Herrera not only secured the title Saturday at the iconic In-N-Out Burger Pomona Dragstrip, but he also sealed the championship in style, qualifying No. 1 for the 14th time this season with a scintillating 6.661-second pass at over 203 miles per hour in the final qualifying session of the season. The run also stands as a Pomona track record and ties the sixth-quickest pass in history.
The newly crowned champ left no doubt in anybody's mind in why he was deserving of the title as Herrera put together one of the greatest Pro Stock Motorcycle seasons in NHRA history, scoring 10 wins on the season, which tied Matt Hines for the most wins in a single season in the class, set a new record for most No. 1 qualifiers in the class with fourteen, and set an elapsed-time record at 6.627 seconds in Dallas. Herrera also holds the seven quickest runs in the class.
"If you have a dream, you have to chase it," Herrera said after being asked by Amanda Busick of Fox Sports what his 2023 NHRA championship season should signify. "I had an awesome group of people behind me, even before I joined Vance & Hines that pushed me to chase this dream. It just goes to show if you have good people behind you, good things come. I can't thank Andrew [Hines], Ed [Eddie Krawiec], Terry [Vance], and Byron [Hines], for seeing what they did in me and giving me the shot. I never would have thought I would have been up here talking to you about a championship. It's been an amazing ride. It's a lot to take in, even right now it doesn't feel real. Can't believe I won the championship. It's incredible."
Although Herrera already has the title locked up going into Sunday's final eliminations and all the pressure seems to be off, the Southern California native still has a chance to make even more history on the season's final day. He can set the record for the most wins in a season for Pro Stock Motorcycle with 11 if he can get the job done. - Darin Williams
3 – Wait a second, two longshots have path to title in Top Fuel - A couple of longshots still have a chance to grab the Top Fuel championship Sunday.
Justin Ashley and Mike Salinas have slim chances, but they each have a chance.
The door would be open for Ashley if points leader Steve Torrence and No. 2 Doug Kalitta lose in the first or second rounds and No. 3-ranked Leah Pruett bows out by the semifinals. But Ashley would have to win the event to record his first championship.
The same set of circumstances would have to play out for Salinas to win his first crown.
5 – Kelly Clontz sent to hospital following accident at top end of racetrack - NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle competitor Kelly Clontz was transported on a backboard to a local hospital following her accident at the end of her Saturday afternoon qualifying pass at the In-N-Out Burger Nationals at Pomona, Calif.
Within a few hours, she reportedly was on her way back to the racetrack, with no broken bones or other serious injuries. It’s unclear if she will feel well enough to race Sunday, but she earned the No. 4 spot in the qualifying order and is bracketed to line up against Angie Smith. Ironically and incredibly, Smith has returned to competition after her accident in the Countdown event at St. Louis and is racing with a still-healing burned arm and eight broken toes.
Clontz had completed a quarter-mile pass of 6.774 seconds at 199.46 mph Saturday when she fell from her motorcycle as it listed to the right.
She and the bike skidded into the wall, and the bike struck her as it bounced off the wall.
Clontz, clearly in pain as she removed her gloves while lying on the ground, was conscious and alert as she communicated with NHRA Medical Director Dr. Phillip Surface.
6 – Matt Smith tests Cuadra-made riding boots designed for better protection - Nothing was in it for Pro Stock racer Fernando Cuadra – no money, no publicity, no business deals. He just saw a need, knew he could be part of the solution, and had a heart that compelled him to reach out.
So when the bootmaker and master crafter of leather goods saw Angie Smith have her accident at St. Louis and display her tenacity in wanting to return to racing her Pro Stock Motorcycle, he stepped up to design a leather boot that would be sturdier and more protective. Moreover, he donated to the entire Pro Stock Motorcycle class, through Matt and Angie Smith, a stack of leather sheets to be used for customized padding in the racers’ riding leathers. He offered the leather sheets free of charge.
Matt Smith first wore the boots in Friday night’s qualifying session (Q2). He wore what he called “the normals” in Friday’s opening session. He said, “as long as I feel comfortable with them, I’ll wear them [Saturday]. It’s just the simple fact of getting used to them.”
He wore them in both Saturday sessions. “And I really like them,” he said.
Cuadra said he was impressed that the Smiths “listened to us” when he approached them, for “not everybody listens.”
As for the soft, pliable sheets of leather intended to added protection, to be sewn inside riding leathers (racers’ unforms), Cuadra said the riders “need to convince themselves to use it.”
The Pro Stock racer said, “I give 100 percent with no other intention – just because. You give the best of you to somebody who deserves that. I have the abilities and skills to do that. If we build community, the business will come later. The first intention is to help somebody that needs it badly. That’s easy for me to do.”
What customarily would take three to four months to fashion and present to a customer took Cuadra and his staff just 72 hours between the Las Vegas race and this weekend’s season finale.
8 – GETTRX to sponsor Pro Stock, Bike Call-Outs starting in 2024 - GETTRX, already a marketing partner with Hector Arana Jr. and Matt Hartford, announced Saturday it will serve as title sponsor for the All-Star Call-Out specialty races in both the Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle classes, starting with the 2024 NHRA Mission Foods Drag Racing Series season.
The Pro Stock version of the GETTRX All-Star Callout will take place Saturday, May 18, as part of the Gerber Collision & Glass Route 66 Nationals at Route 66 Raceway at Joliet, Ill. The Pro Stock Motorcycle GETTRX All-Star Call-Out will go Saturday, July 27, at California’s Sonoma Raceway as part of the Denso Sonoma Nationals. The combined total purse for both specialty races will be nearly $140,000.
Steve Bryson, GETTRX founder and CEO, said, “GETTRX is proud of our increased presence with the NHRA. We see this as a natural progression. The GETTRX All-Star Callouts reward drivers for being aggressive and celebrate the teams by putting them in the spotlight and giving them a unique prize to race for. In many ways, this is no different than how we reward our teammates, the companies that trust us to handle their payment processing, with exceptional service, competitive processing rates and advanced technology.”
Camrie Caruso won the unsponsored 2023 Pro Stock inaugural at Joliet. Gaige Herrera’s double-up weekend at Sonoma included the victory in the bike edition.
“The All-Star Call-Out events have added such an interesting aspect to our specialty races,” Brad Gerber, NHRA’s vice-president and chief development officer, said. “GETTRX has shown such tremendous passion for NHRA drag racing and a willingness to be involved in the sport in different ways, and this is a great way for them to showcase their brand and also offer their support to our incredible racers in Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle.”
9 – Cruz Pedregon sponsorship rolls on - Cruz Pedregon never imagined he’d have a synonymous sponsorship. But here he is three decades later, killing it.
Pedregon's partnership with Snap-on Tools dates back to 1992, when the two first teamed up, and remained intact, despite a 2001 season where he served as a television analyst for ESPN. He returned in 2002, with full sponsorship from Snap-on, a relationship extended Saturday through the 2026 season.
"I never thought I'd get to this point, and I told John Force the other day, 'I thought I was going to race you for a couple of years and that would be it,’" Pedregon said. "The fact he and I are the only ones left racing from the early 1990s is a blessing.
"I'm not a real religious guy, but I do think the good Lord has smiled down on me [with this Snap-on deal]. I'm very proud of this. I don't take it for granted. It's a lot of work. I remember listening to Kenny Bernstein and his quotes for how to maintain those relationships. You have to underpromise and overdeliver. That's what I try to do."
Snap-on Tool has found a perfect fit with Pedregon.
“Racing fans know Cruz as a fierce competitor whose name is synonymous with drag racing. As his team’s primary sponsor, we at Snap-on recognize him for being a champion of our brand since 1992,” Randy Stewart, of Snap-on motorsports, said. “When a partnership like ours spans three decades, we’re fortunate to celebrate so many highlights together from Cruz’s first win in a nitro Funny Car through today, where he is the returning champ of last year’s Finals.
“Snap-on appreciates the work Cruz puts into building a solid, single-car team that consistently finishes each season strong. We’re looking forward to our continued, valued partnership and are proud to support Cruz and NHRA drag racing,” he said.
Pedregon's racing resume includes two championships and 36 overall Funny Car wins.
10 - Veterans take center stage - Four of Tony Stewart Racing’s crew members were celebrated Saturday in honor of Veterans Day at the In-N-Out Burger Finals at Pomona. Those veterans – Thomas Brown, Kurt Johnson, Allen Oberbroeckling and Chris Shuron – perform unique positions within the Direct Connection Dodge//SRT Top Fuel and Funny Car teams.
Brown, who oversees body and tire preparation on Hagan’s Funny Car, was a sergeant and squad leader in the Army. Johnson, TSR’s track specialist, spent six years as a United States Marine Aircraft Fire Fighter during Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Oberbroeckling, a member of TSR’s hospitality team, was an 88M Motor Transport Operator in the Army. Shuron, a clutch assistant who handles tire preparation on Pruett’s Top Fuel dragster, served in the Marines as a lance corporal.
Pruett said that this weekend she’ll be thanking “as many veterans I see in person as often as I can, because we couldn’t be living free without them. For our veteran crew members, I don’t think there is a bigger gratitude of thanks than to give it all we’ve got on-track and to hand them the Wally at the end of the day.”
Justin Ashley and his Phillips Connect/Toyota Top Fuel team have supported veterans through the Wyakin Foundation, whose mission is to connect wounded veterans to their post-military careers through academic and job planning, leadership development, strategic networking support, and project-management experiences. In this third year of partnership with the Wyakin Foundation, Ashley already has donated $2,500 to the group, but he will be hosting three veterans.
Army veteran and Purple Heart recipient George Nickel, Army combat veteran (with a tour of duty in Iraq) Brandon B., and retired Navy veteran Patrick S. joined Ashley’s team on the starting line during the third overall qualifying session Saturday and go an up-close look at what Ashley and the team do to prepare for competition.
Nickel has effected change in how Idaho law enforcement engages with distressed veterans. He is the Wyakin Foundation’s Director of Veteran Programs and has helped more than 160 veterans during the past 12 years. Brandon B. is in the Wyakin trades program and is on pace to get his degree as a machinist. So is Patrick S., who deployed to the Gulf during the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns also is pursuing his machinist certification.
“This is one of the most powerful opportunities I have as part of my relationship with Phillips Connect,” Ashley said. “Bringing awareness to the Wyakin Foundation and getting to meet and spend time with veterans is so important. Helping in a small way to get these men and women back into society and supporting their education and professional goals is truly an honor. They have sacrificed so much for our freedoms and although we can never fully repay them, I hope this serves as a small token of our gratitude.”
Top Fuel driver Ron August Jr. enters this weekend’s In-N-Out Burger NHRA Finals with new livery on his dragster to honor veterans of the United States armed forces. The 11,000-horsepower dragster will banner the signage of Clovis Veterans Memorial District in an effort to remember those who fought for our freedom throughout Veterans Day Weekend.
Longtime part-time Top Fuel driver Ron August Jr. entered the weekend with new livery on his dragster to honor veterans of the United States Armed Forces. It features signage of Clovis Veterans Memorial District in an effort to remember those who fought for our freedom.
“I am grateful for the Ron August Racing team supporting our Veterans and wish him and the team the best,” Lorenzo Rios, CEO of the Clovis Veterans Memorial District, said. “This weekend, it is appropriate that we take a moment to recognize how blessed our country is to have Americans who freely volunteer to stand up and accept the tremendous responsibility to uphold and defend our American way of life against all enemies, both foreign and domestic, through their oath of service to the Constitution of the United States.”
August said, “I consider myself very lucky to be able to race with my family, and it’s important to remember those who fought for our freedom. The opportunity to show our gratitude while racing on Veteran’s Day is a great honor. I appreciate Clovis Veterans Memorial District for working with us to present this to NHRA fans."
The Clovis (Calif.) Memorial District is a permanent living memorial honoring U.S. Military and veterans, providing facilities and support programs to promote a legacy of service for preserving the community's and country's foundational ideals. At the end of World War II, a group of local businessmen decided to honor those who had returned home from the war in Europe and the Pacific. 77 years later, the Clovis Veterans Memorial District is the crown jewel of the Clovis community.
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK - Competition Plus’ Top-10 News Items For Friday’s NHRA In-N-Out Finals
1 – Championship chases come down to final weekend - The scenarios are set for title chases in all four Camping World Drag Racing Series classes.
In the Top Fuel class, No. 1-seeded Steve Torrence leads No. 2 Doug Kalitta by 15 points. That likely will stay within a round heading into eliminations Sunday. Third-ranked Leah Pruett is two rounds behind Torrence and one behind Kalitta, but can get within one round by gaining four or more qualifying points than Torrence. If that happens, the championship would come down to who has the best day Sunday.
Justin Ashley and Mike Salinas both are still in the hunt mathematically, but are three rounds behind Torrence. To have a chance at the title, they would need Torrence to lose early, Kalitta to lose by the second round, and Pruett to lose by the semifinals.
In Funny Car, the top three drivers in the standings – Matt Hagan, Bob Tasca III, and Robert Hight – are separated by 17 points, so they all are within a round of each other. That makes it a “who has the best Sunday wins the title.” It could wind up a winner-take-all scenario in the final round of a race that pays points-and-a-half.
In Pro Stock, Erica Enders leads Greg Anderson by 114 points. If she gains seven or more qualifying points than he does, she will win the championship after qualifying is completed Saturday. If not, she would simply have to win in the first round to clinch the championship.
In Pro Stock Motorcycle, it’s no surprise that season-long dominator Gaige Herrera will win the championship when qualifying is completed. He is expected to be declared the champion Saturday after the fourth and final qualifying session.
Competition Plus thanks Josh Hachat, NHRA director of public relations and communications, for the information.
3 – Tentative Top Fuel leader Steve Torrence confident he can’t lose lead - Steve Torrence said his quickest pass of 3.641 seconds at 335.65 mph that gave him the provisional lead Friday was “a huge boost for us. We took a year, maybe a year and a half, to do what we’re doing. It took a lot of time and effort to get there. That’s big for me, not that it boosts your head up, but it definitely gives you a confidence and somewhat an advantage going into a round where ‘Hey, we’ve got to throw down.’ And we can throw down more than they can. I would dare to say I have the best race car that I’ve had in a long time; probably the quickest and fastest race car I’ve ever had.”
What’s more, Torrence said Friday that “I don’t think that we can lose the lead, especially now” – even though closest rival Doug Kalitta gained six qualifying bonus points and the Capco team earned just four Friday.
“I’ve been here five different times to win it or lose it, and I lost it the first time. And that was a bitter taste. I’ll never forget it,” Torrence said. “So I’m going to do the best that I can not to have to deal with that anymore.”
5 – Pro Stock provisional top qualifier Greg Anderson landing his best punches - Greg Anderson isn’t going to miss out on the Pro Stock championship and see Erica Enders earn a sixth crown without a fight. He posted a 6.495-second elapsed time, five-thousandths of a second quicker than points leader Enders, Friday to take the tentative top spot in the qualifying order.
The five-time champion said, “The points deal is obviously not exactly playing in my favor right now. But it’s like the line from ‘Dumb and Dumber’: 'So you’re saying there’s a chance.'
“I probably need a bit of a miracle to happen, but it’s not over until it’s over,” Anderson said before the event began. On Friday he said, “I need lightning to strike,” But he gained a couple of points on Enders in qualifying performance, earning six points to her four.
“We are going [into competition] with all of the confidence in the world that we can win the race. You never wish bad fortune on anybody else, but if the other team happens to stumble, we will have a chance,” Anderson said. “I’m not acting defeated already. I’m going like I still have a chance until they tell me I don’t.”
6 – Canadian Spencer Hyde makes fiery Top Fuel debut - The NHRA used to promote the marketing slogan “Baptism By Fire.” And PDRA Pro Mod veteran Spencer Hyde took that to heart, certainly making his NHRA Top Fuel debut a memorable one Friday.
His initial pass in the Elite-branded dragster was a straight, smooth 3.921-second, 254.18-mph, but at the finish line, he experienced a massive engine explosion. The rude welcome to Top Fuel racing burned the parachutes off and knocked his supercharger askew in what public-address announcer Alan Reinhart called “a flaming mess” and “rapid unscheduled disassembly.”
Hyde said after the massive fireball, “That’s not what we were going for at all. I felt like I was on a decent run, then right before the finish line, [I had] the biggest bang I ever felt. It was a pretty big concussion, flames coming up in front of me. Scary ride, but I think everything’s going to be OK. I’m fine.
“It felt pretty good all the way down through there. Then at about 800 feet, it banged pretty hard – and I knew it banged up good. I tried to get it stopped. Smoke was coming up. I couldn’t really see. Safety guys did a good job of getting me out. We’re good. We’re going to try to get it fixed up and come back,” he said.
This Todd and Tony Paton-owned dragster – which Kelly Harper drove in his NHRA debut at Las Vegas two weeks ago – is one in which Hyde has some experience. He competed in it at two match races this summer, one in New York and one at Grand Bend, Ontario, which is his home track.
”So I was in the car a few times,” Hyde said. “And I don't really let that bother me that other people have been in it. I've got my own seat poured in the car for me. There's not a lot that you can really change in those cars. The car was built for Tony Schumacher, who's pretty much the same size as me. We're both [5-foot-7, 5-8] and not very big. So everything is pretty much right where it needs to be for me, and I'm comfortable in there.”
Hyde was impressive in his licensing passes, clocking a 3.80-second elapsed time at 324 mph at Florida’s Gainesville Raceway in March. “That was my first full run. Only made one, not even an eighth-mile run in it in [Ontario], and it put a couple holes out, so it was pretty slow. So that was kind of the ‘s--- or get off the pot’ moment, so to speak." He finished his licensing in Gainesville and immediately competed in and won the World Series of Pro Mod.
Predictably, funding was the big hurdle to breaking into the Top Fuel class before. He said, “I told these guys that I want to drive the car, but I'm not paying for it out of my own pocket. So I'm just trying to get that all together, and it just kind of happened. This is kind of the first real opportunity for [competing in] NHRA.”
Hyde said he often is asked to compare the Top Fuel car with the Pro Mod, and he said, “I think that they require two very different skillsets to drive them. In the Pro Mod, the first two seconds of the run is the important part. That's where everything kind of happens. Your wheels are in the air. You don't have a lot of steering input. After that, you shift into high gear and you're kind of just along for the ride at that point. The fuel car is basically the exact opposite. The first 300 feet in a run, the front wheel is on the ground. You can see everything. It is going faster than the Pro Mod, but it doesn't feel faster. ut when the clutch locks up in the fuel car, it basically takes off for the second time. There's no real words to explain it. Everything's starting to get a little bit blurry, and it's just warp speed. All you're trying to do is keep up with the car, keep it in the center. It's pretty crazy.
“I don't like saying that the fuel car is easier to drive, but it is,” he said. “You kind of got full control of where you put the car. There's so much downforce on the front and rear wheels that you can steer them around the racetrack. With the Pro Mod you don't. You can't really put that much steering input into them without getting in trouble.
“It's not really so much nerves. I know I can drive a car,” Hyde said. “I know that it's a good car. It's a whole different element when you're on the big stage at NHRA. I've never ran an NHRA event, national event. I've run some divisional stuff back in my Top Sportsman days. The closest I got was Gainesville 2020. We had our Pro Mod there, and Thursday we got told to go home when COVID broke out. This is my first NHRA national event, and it just happened to be in Top Fuel. I am nervous, but I'm very excited, as well. I’m going to take it all in and just go with the flow.”
Hyde said Harper “actually finished his license with me in Gainesville, so I got to meet Kelly in Gainesville in February. And we were both kind of in the same boat. So when he secured funding for Vegas, Todd called me and said, ‘Listen, we're going to take this thing all the way up to Vegas. We'd love to do Pomona. See what you can come up with, and we'll try and make this work.’ So that's kind of how this came together. We've committed to do Gainesville in March, as well, so that's exciting, too,” Hyde said. “It'll be the last race of ’23 and the first race of ’24. And hopefully over the winter at PRI, I can beat on some doors and help find some marketing partners and see if we can do a few more.
“Hopefully, I can sweeten the pot and maybe find some partners to display their name on the Pro Mod, as well. It's good exposure for somebody. We're going to run Bradenton for the Snowbirds [Snowbird Nationals], and then, of course, the World Series of Pro Mod again, which is the weekend before Gainesville. So I'll be down there back-to-back, in the Pro Mod the first week and the fuel car the second week,” he said.
Hyde has gotten to know the Paton family during the past year or so, and, he said, “They're just great people. I've got to know both their families and a bunch of the crew guys, and it's a good fit all around. It just adds an extra level of comfort going into something like this where, I won't lie, I'm nervous to do it, but also got all the confidence in the world. The Patons will give me a good car, and I can trust the crew guys and stuff like that, so it's a good fit. It adds a little bit of a cool factor for us Canadians going down to compete against the Americans.”
7 – Paul Lee makes his mark in Funny Car qualifying - Paul Lee was on top of the world for about five pairs of Funny Cars during the Q2 session at the NHRA In-N-Out Finals. The successful businessman, who considers nitro racing his fun time, had run the quickest elapsed time of his career, a 3.875-second pass, to claim the provisional No. 1 qualifier.
And, even when Matt Hagan edged his career mark on the last pass of the session, Lee was still smiling from ear to ear.
Lee goes into Saturday qualifying as No. 2, but the run, the feeling of success, is a personal No. 1 by a mile.
“I mean, you do this stuff for 40 years. I’ve been driving these things, alcohol and nitro, and that’s my all-time quickest run, and that’s what it’s all about," Lee said. "You’re always striving to do better than you did before. So, yeah, it’s just one run, but it’s a lifetime of work before that.”
8 - Del Worsham back behind the wheel of a Funny Car - What is Del Worsham doing in a Funny Car again? After 33 years in the business, with a Top Fuel championship (2011) and another in his more familiar Funny Car class (2015), why is he competing again?
The Orange, California, native had a one-word answer. With a sly smile, he said, “Joyriding.”
Worsham said, “I'm lucky. I'm pretty fortunate to be able to have this opportunity to be able to pull a stunt off at this hometown race. I saw the advertisements on social media, I saw on TV. I looked at my wife. She was good with that. I called Alexis [Funny Car driver DeJoria, for whom Worsham is team owner and co-crew chief]. That was my first call. She was good with it. I said, ‘Alright, we'll make this happen. Let's have some fun.’
The car Worsham is driving is De Joria’s back-up car at DC Motorsports, and it’s sponsored by CP Carrillo. His crew this weekend is idle Funny Car racer Brandon Welch and his entire Beal Racing team. Worsham is working this weekend out of the Beal Racing hauler.
10 – ‘I’m going to keep beating him up,’ bike leader says of teammate - Pro Stock Motorcycle champion-in-waiting Gaige Herrera has continued his dominating season, sometimes at the expense of Vance & Hines teammate Eddie Krawiec. And Krawiec has continued to seek his milestone 50th victory. Herrera revealed Friday whether he would concede a victory to Krawiec if they were to meet in Sunday’s final round of eliminations, Krawiec’s final chance this season to reach that plateau.
“I’m going to keep beating him up,” Herrera said, sharing that the conversation came up at the most recent race at Las Vegas, when they met in the final round for the third straight time.
Herrera said he asked Krawiec before they came to the starting line, “What do you want me to do?”
Krawiec said, “Nothing. I’m going to go kick your head in.”
“All right,” Herrera said. “I guess we’re racing, then.”
Herrera said, “He definitely doesn’t want it that way. He feels if he gets it that way, it’s not an actual win to him. And I respect that. I would be the same way if I was in his shoes. It would be awesome if we were in the final. We’ll see what happens.”