2023 NHRA NORTHWEST NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
THE TEN - TEN DEFINING MOMENTS FROM THE NHRA NORTHWEST NATIONALS
Competition Plus’ Water-Cooler Topics From The NHRA Northwest Nationals outside of Seattle, Wa.
1 – Steve Torrence gobbles up 54th victory against equally hungry Doug Kalitta - Antron Brown said it, but the comment easily could have come from Steve Torrence or Doug Kalitta: ““We’re coming in hungry, and it’s not for king salmon.” But no one in the class was hungrier than Sunday’s two Top Fuel finalists, Steve Torrence and Doug Kalitta.
Torrence got his taste of victory, for the 54th time overall, second at Seattle, and the first time since the 2022 St. Louis race (14 events ago). In cashing in on his third final-round appearance of the year, the Capco Contractors dragster driver moved to within two victories of tying Antron Brown for No. 3 on the all-time Top Fuel list. Torrence won here 10 years after his other triumph at Seattle.
And in doing so, he denied Kalitta his first victory in 56 races and his 50th overall. The Mac Tools dragster driver ran his elimination-round victory record to 750 as he advanced to his second straight final-round appearance.
“You win a lot of these and you get a little bit complacent and maybe not as grateful as you should be,” Torrence said. He gave Toyota its 200th drag-racing victory, but more sentimental to him was earning the first victory since losing his maternal grandmother in March.
The four-time Top Fuel champion, who had been on a dominating tear for four of the past five years, said, “We went way off the rails last season” and had experienced “a mental struggle” in going from a steamroller to getting steamrolled. He has spoken at the past couple of races about working to get his “Steve Torrence Swagger” back after seeing the competition “cut my head off at the Tree, outrun me on the track, and make me look like I’d never showed up and done this before.”
3 – Gaige Herrera Pro Stock Motorcycle winner – again - Stop us if you’ve heard this one before. (Have you heard that one before?)
Pro Stock Motorcycle ace Gaige Herrera won for the fifth time in his class’ seventh appearance on the schedule as he became the first-ever bike winner at Pacific Raceways.
He defeated Vance & Hines Mission Suzuki teammate Eddie Krawiec, keeping him from celebrating his 50th victory.
Herrera said of Krawiec, “He’s my boss, but the Wally comes home to Vance & Hines. I expected something on the starting line, but he played a fair game.”
4 – J.R. Todd calls Alex Laughlin a ‘clown’ who ‘ought to keep his mouth shut’ - Social-media feuders and NHRA Funny Car racers J.R. Todd and Alex Laughlin met in the opening round of eliminations, and Todd had trouble getting his car to start. Laughlin, driving for drag-racing pioneer “Big Jim” Dunn, waited for Todd’s crew to get the car fired up. Then Laughlin’s car experienced mechanical trouble, so his crew shut off the car and consequently gave Todd a solo pass into the quarterfinals.
In his top-end interview with Jason Galvin immediately following the run, Todd said, “Really unfortunate to not be able to race against Big Jim Dunn and those guys. He’s a living legend in thr sport. I have a lot of respect for him. But maybe that clown driving the car, he ought to keep his mouth shut from now on.”
The bad blood goes back to April, when Laughlin mocked Todd’s Kalitta Motorsports teammate Shawn Langdon for a starting-line mistake. That triggered a trash-talking quarrel. Then Laughlin was disrespectful of Todd’s sponsor in a post prior to Sunday’s eliminations.
Todd let his raw reaction spill out in his interview – something that Pacific Raceways President Jason Fiorito had encouraged.
Fiorito found himself under fire this weekend for his own comments in an Autoweek article. He simply had urged racers to resist the canned, boring, bland top-end remarks and show some passion for a sport that he said is “personal” and adrenaline-filled. But many readers misinterpreted his intention, which was to share their excitement at racing 11,000-horsepower machines the length of two football fields at more than 320 mph for less than four seconds.
Some drag-racing fans scolded him for “advocating violence,” shamed him and said he’s inciting mayhem to sell tickets. But at least one fan from Canada called him and said after reading the article that he had bought tickets and was driving down to Seattle to see what might happen.
A verbal salvo or two is all that the article might have stirred, but Todd’s criticism of his rival had been simmering for much of the season.
5 – Bike wunderkind Gaige Herrera only racer eligible to sweep Western Swing up - Three racers entered this event with a chance to sweep the Western Swing that winds from Denver to Seattle to Sonoma, Calif., in successive weekends. As the action shifted to northern California’s Wine Country, just one of them – Pro Stock Motorcycle racer Gaige Herrera – remained eligible to do so.
Denver winner and points leader Matt Hagan couldn’t get past Tim Wilkerson in the first round of Funny Car eliminations, killing his chance to add his name to the Western Swing “sweepers.”
Clay Millican, the Top Fuel victor at Denver, lasted one more round Sunday than Hagan. In his semifinal race against Doug Kalitta – a rematch of last weekend’s Denver final – Millican red-lit away his chance.
6 - Clay Millican urges eighth-mile racing - With John Bandimere Jr. confirming that his family’s Denver-area racetrack is in the process of being sold and the Phoenix facility announcing earlier in the year that it was hosting its final race, the Camping World Drag Racing Series is entertaining replacements. And Clay Millican, the final Top Fuel winner at Bandimere Speedway, had a suggestion: race at a couple of eighth-mile tracks.
The NHRA ditched quarter-mile competition for nitro cars in 2008, limiting the course to 1,000 feet for safety reasons. The idea has arisen before, and one of the arguments against it is that tuners would have a tough time switching up their traditional routines. But Millican’s opinion is that if these crew chiefs could take on the challenges of the thin air at Denver (conditions that produce data useless anywhere else), they certainly could adjust to an eighth-mile track.
“With the way land prices are going,” he said, “you can't be mad at some of these track owners for selling. You just can't. The numbers that are flying around, rumor-wise, that these tracks are selling for, you can't be mad at the people that are selling them. And for me, being a bracket racer at heart. I grew up eighth-mile racing. There's some eighth-mile facilities in this country that I don't know why we couldn't go to some of them. And there's three great racetracks in Canada.
“There are a couple out there that could hold a heck of an NHRA national event,” he said. “I think it’s something they should look at. I really do.”
Millican said he expects to face criticism from those who disagree. “I get grief all the time on my YouTube channel: ‘I'm not watching anymore because it's a thousand feet.’ But with some of these tracks going away, why wouldn't we look at some of these wonderful eighth-mile facilities that are available out there?”
7 – Pair of #2FAST2TASTY winners from Seattle get another shot at Sonoma - Steve Torrence (Top Fuel), Ron Capps (Funny Car), and Gaige Herrera (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were winners Saturday in the Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge.
Torrence and Herrera will race in the specialty event that takes place during Saturday qualifying for a chance to earn more cash and Countdown bonus points.
The Top Fuel’s Fab Four for the Sonoma version of the race include Doug Kalitta, Shawn Langdon, and Clay Millican. In Funny Car, the quartet consists of Blake Alexander, Chad Green, J.R. Todd, and Tim Wilkerson. Herrera’s rivals in the bonus event will be Hector Arana Jr., Eddie Krawiec, and Matt Smith.
9 – That’s what they said -
"We put our socks on the same way. We don't wear the same underwear every day. But we do weird stuff." - Bobby Lagana, car chief of the winning Capco Contractors Dragster
“It’s been a long time since I got a trophy for anything.” – J.R. Todd, Funny Car runner-up, who’ll try to break his 53-race drought this coming weekend at Sonoma
“I might pull a tail off a jackrabbit.” – Funny Car driver Tim Wilkerson, speaking – apparently – of his luck in reaching the final round Sunday
“Good Lord, we done won us another one, boys.” – Steve Torrence to his “Capco Boys” crew as he got the final-round win light against Doug Kalitta
10 – Yes, they said that, too -
“Today’s one month since she’s been gone. Can’t be any better. She’s watching.” – Joe Maynard, after watching business partner Tim Wilkerson earn the Funny Car victory.
“I couldn’t be more proud of what we have going on. It was there for the taking in the final, and it was one of those deals where we let one get away. For Mac Tools, Revchem, Toyota, definitely appreciate everyone’s support. We’ll give it another shot next week, and maybe Sonoma will be our time.” – Doug Kalitta after watching Steve Torrence turn his own fortunes around while preventing him from claiming his long-sought 50th victory.
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK - THREE HAVE CHANCE TO SWEEP WESTERN SWING FOR FIRST (AND PRESUMABLY LAST) TIME, MILLICAN HAS SUGGESTION FOR NHRA WITH LOSS OF DENVER TRACK, STOFFER STICKING CLOSER TO HOME
WHO'S GONNA WIN IT? - Will the Western Swing’s “Magnificent Seven” become the “Elite Eight” this year? This weekend’s Flav-R-Pac NHRA Northwest Nationals at Pacific Raceways holds the key, as three racers – Clay Millican (Top Fuel), Matt Hagan (Funny Car), and Gaige Herrera (Pro Stock Motorcycle) – have a chance to “sweep the swing.”
The Camping World Drag Racing Series has seen just seven racers win all three Western Swing races, at Denver, Seattle and Sonoma. Five-time Top Fuel ace Joe Amato started the winning in 1991, and three-time Top Fuel champ Antron Brown is the most recent to score the hat trick (2009). In between, John Force (Funny Car, 1994), Cory McClenathan (Top Fuel, 1997), Larry Dixon (Top Fuel, 2003), Greg Anderson (Pro Stock, 2004), and Tony Schumacher (Top Fuel, 2008) have accomplished the feat.
Jesse Snyder, clutch specialist for Clay Millican’s Parts Plus Dragster, said, “To sweep the Swing would be phenomenal. Only a handful of people have swept the Swing, and that was years ago. We’re the only [Top Fuel] car that can – and the last one.
“We’ll see what happens.,” he said. “We're taking every round one step at a time, and we're going to go from there. We're acting like we didn't win Denver, because you might think about it too much. You start making mistakes. You start going on the track and you start, man, are we going to sweep this, are we going to do this? But this team is phenomenal. We just got to move on to the next one and everybody does their job and we'll go from there.”
Millican said before qualifying began Saturday, “You can only do one thing correctly, and that's take care of what you're doing right this moment. You can't look forward. It just don't work that way. You prepare for the future, but you can't plan what's going to happen. That's my mindset. You just got to take care of what you're doing this moment and take every opportunity to make this very moment the best it is. In our case, we're preparing the car right now for Round 1 of the Mission Foods deal. So that's what we're doing.”
As for the Western Swing, Millican said, “Tomorrow. We'll take care of it tomorrow. Got a chance tomorrow. Got a chance. If it happens, it's supposed to happen. If it doesn't happen, it wasn't supposed to happen. That’s how I see it.”
Hagan would like to become the only Funny Car driver besides John Force to sweep the Swing.
“I've never swept a Swing, so I would really like to have the opportunity to do well and try that before my run is done out here,” Hagan said. “And it's just one of those things where now Denver's gone and there's not really going to be a Western Swing anymore. You never know. So it would be great. I think right now we got a great car, a great team. We got a lot of momentum moving forward and we just kind of get in there and get up on the wheel and see what we can do.”
Hagan said he has learned not to put pressure on himself or try to force an outcome.
“You have to just block everything out,” he said. “Sometimes you can get in your mind and then push it away from yourself. Mike Ashley pulled me aside when I won my first championship, and he was a guy I respected a lot in Pro Mod because we were running Mod together and he was always winning stuff. And then I watched him drive a fuel car for a while. He said, ‘Let it come to you. And he said, ‘Hey, kid, don't chase this championship away from you. Let it come to you.’ He said, “Don’t do anything different than what you've already done to get here.’
“That really stuck with me. Those words still ring true today. Just keep doing what you're doing to get yourself in the position to be where you need to be. And that's what we're doing all season. We won four races and runnered-up a few times and have had really good race car this year.”
Herrera has a chance to become the first bike racer to sweep the Western Swing because the two-wheeled class never had a chance to do that before. Herrera also could be maybe the last person to do so, assuming the vanishing Denver market won’t be replaced for a new-look Western Swing next year or beyond.
“That’s something we've been talking about,” the Vance & Hines racer said. “To be able to come basically as the first time, motorcycles doing the Western swing, that's definitely something we're looking at trying to do. I mean that's kind of our main goal right now is to be consistent, go A to B and hopefully come on top and sweep it. And not only that, we got the Mission Challenge [Saturday] and then we got the Call-Out [at Sonoma]. So there's a lot going on in these next two weeks. We're going to be busy.”
HAGAN HAS CRAZY SCHEDULE – With everything that has happened with Matt Hagan lately, it’s hard to imagine he has time to think of his Dodge Direct Connection Charger Hellcat Funny Car. His travel schedule has been so chaotic he hasn’t had time to focus exclusively on his chances to complete the Western Swing with a perfect record.
“I'm trying to go home in between races and do all that stuff and run back and forth and [deal with] the time change. And unfortunately, on the flight out to Denver, I had an emergency landing — two of the crew members got sick. I get home and then someone kicked in the windows of my Hellcat Durango, tried to steal it. So that made for a long night when I got home from the Denver race.
“And then coming back out here [to Seattle], there was a lady that had a heart attack on the flight. So we had an emergency landing in Chicago. So flying, it turned from a five-hour flight to a nine-hour flight. I felt like I was kind of traveling overseas, but hopefully she was alright. But at the end of the day, this travel stuff has been wearing me out,” Hagan said.
“I've been trying to sleep in as much as I can and get as much rest traveling back and forth,” Hagan said. “And then I go back home again on a red-eye out of here, my little girl's birthday party is on Monday. She'll be five. So it's just one of those things, run and gun, you know.”
EIGHTH-MILE RACING? ‘WHY NOT’?’ MILLICAN SAYS – Clay Millican earned the final Top Fuel trophy at Bandimere Speedway last week, and with that facility dropping from the tour, he had an idea that he said he might catch some grief for expressing but is worth a thought.
“With the way land prices are going,” he said, “you can't be mad at some of these track owners for selling. You just can't. The numbers that are flying around rumor-wise that these tracks are selling for, you can't be mad at the people that are selling them. And for me, being a bracket racer at heart, I mean, there's some eighth-mile facilities in this country that, I don't know why we couldn't go to some of them.”
He pooh-poohed talk that such a switch would be too difficult for tuners to switch gears. But Millican did say he recognizes that parking and grandstands and lighting and logistics might make it difficult for the sanctioning body to embrace his suggestion. “There are a couple out there that could hold a heck of an NHRA national event,” he said.
“I grew up eighth-mile racing. And I get grief all the time on my YouTube channel: ‘I'm not watching anymore because it's a thousand feet.’ But with some of these tracks going away, why wouldn't we look at some of these wonderful eighth-mile facilities that are available out there?”
He used NASCAR’s Darlington Raceway throwback weekend as an example of what can work.
“I would love to do that somewhere,” he said. “I would be 100 percent for doing some eighth-mile races at some of these nice facilities that are around the country” as regularly scheduled points meets.
STOFFER FIRM THAT SHE WON’T RETURN FULL-TIME – The need and desire to stay close to family has kept Pro Stock Motorcycle standout Karen Stoffer at home this year, firmly sticking to her and husband Gary’s decision to retire from fulltime racing.
“I wouldn't be a full-time racer. I can't do it. Just need the family time a little bit,” the Gardnerville, Nev., resident said before securing the No. 11 spot in the 14-bike field at Pacific Raceways. “We've been doing it for a long time and we made a decision. We still want a race, but we need to be closer to home and race the West Coast. So, it's good. Plus we want to support NHRA in a couple of other ways. We want to be able to help riders get re-licensed. Got a couple people who want to lease the bike for races, so just making sure that it's all shaped up right and everything's running good. And with the new rule change, testing it out.
She downplayed her absence by saying, “You got a lot of good, young, friendly other riders out here that filled that void. And hopefully we'll be able to get some more new riders out here. People don't realize there's a lot of riders and racers out there racing other associations, and they just don't know how to get over here and make the step here. And it worked out good for Gaige [Herrera, who used ran under the Stoffer umbrella last year], and I'm so happy for him and Vance & Hines. It's a great match. With Gaige, with his knowledge, he's born and raised around bikes. He builds 'em. He tunes 'em. He races all good. It's good for both of them.”
As for Gary and herself, Karen Stoffer said, “We can continue contributing to NHRA. I love racing, and we want to do good. And we want to come out here, and I want to turn on win lights a little bit less often so I don't have to travel across the United States. But in the meantime, we can still help people come out here and see what it's like and show 'em everything about it.”
She indicated she can’t be talked out of her decision down the road.
“No, I don't think so,” she said. “Leave it to the young guns. Try and help young guns coming out here and doing that. I don't foresee coming out here full-time, just helping out in another way, contributing to NHRA and paying back the sport that we love so much in another way.”
#2FAST2TASTY WINNERS – Steve Torrence (Top Fuel), Ron Capps (Funny Car), and Gaige Herrera (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were winners Saturday in the Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge.
For Herrera, this third Mission Foods Challenge victory over Angie Smith in the final round complemented his sixth No. 1 qualifying position of the year. He had defeated Chase Van Sant to advance to the final.
“Time for some chips and salsa!” Herrera said right after hopping off his Vance & Hines Mission Suzuki.
Torrence didn’t top the Top Fuel qualifying chart Saturday; Mike Salinas did. But Torrence did polish off both Kalitta Motorsports drivers — Doug Kalitta, then Shawn Langdon — in back-to-back qualifying sessions to claim his first trophy in the regular-season-long bonus race.
“It definitely gives me a boost of confidence in my race car and in myself just driving my car,” Torrence said. “I went [to Denver] with a completely different mindset to start the Western Swing – to go out and get that Steve Torrence swagger back. You can overthink the situation. You can overanalyze it. You can do a lot of different things and back yourself into a corner, and you either fight your way out or you don’t. And I’m a fighter. I re-evaluated my situation, I trusted my guys and my guys and my car. We didn’t win four world championships by me doing something stupid and not trusting in them. That was the mindset I went to Denver with. Left there with a lot of confidence in the car and came here. You may be able to go up there and run a little bit quicker, but you still want to win that Shootout. We did what we needed to do.”
He described this visit to Seattle as challenging: “It’s hot for here. You’re sitting in the car and it’s high stress and you’re ready to race. You’re wanting to win. The sun is dead behind the Tree, and you’re blinking. I knew I missed the tree. Not many times do you get away with that against Shawn Langdon, but we had a good car. My guys were consistent, and we went out and it did what it was supposed to do. To sum that up, a lot of confidence going into race day tomorrow. First win we’ve had in a while.”
Torrence will meet Josh Hart in the opening round of eliminations Sunday.
The Capco Contractors dragster driver said, “We openly and admittedly kicked ourselves last year in trying to re-create the wheel, and I think that it’s finally coming around the way that we wanted to. It’s more mentally taxing than anything, because when you have that momentum and that confidence and that swagger and just that consistency that we had for four years and then to have a season like we had last year, you kind of have to dig deep to get back where you’re at. I’m not one of the guys that looks back at what we’ve accomplished. I look back and think you’re only as good as your last pass, and it hadn’t been that good. We’re thankful for all of the partners that have stood behind us and that Capco Contractors Toyota dragster with MAC Tools and Red Line in it. It’s the baddest thing here. I’ve got the best thing. I’ll put my team toe to toe with any team in the history of this sport. We’ve done more and accomplished more in a shorter time frame than anybody and you’ve got to remember that and stand with the guys. You’ve got to stand with the girl you brought to the dance, and that’s what we’re doing.”
It was Torrence’s first victory in the Mission Foods Challenge in four final-round appearances. He became only the third Top Fuel winner of the specialty race, joining Doug Kalitta and Justin Ashley.
On the Funny Car side, Ron Capps drove his Toyota Supra to the $10,000 victory and added to his Countdown bonus points total with a semifinal victory over Matt Hagan and a final-round triumph against J.R. Todd.
“Once again, I want to just say it over and over: Thank you to Mission Foods for putting this up. They really created something cool. We all ran it. We all saw the points is the thing that stood out for most. It’s great money – we appreciate that, too. As you know, we won the championship last year by less than a handful of points. I completely understand. I’ve lost championships in year’s past by less than a handful of points several times. I understand that, but what they did to be able to do this and to be able to get your confidence back, it does help. They created a whole new Saturday. It was cool to have two Toyotas up there. Obviously, Alexis [DeJoria] or J.R. [Todd] were both so key in inviting me to the Toyota family this year and I’ve bragged and bragged about that. So, anytime I race them in a final or something like that it’s fun to go and throw down because we knew a Toyota was going to win.
“We’ll take the points. We’re very excited about that. I’m happy for Guido [crew chief Dean Antonelli]. He’s got some good data for tomorrow. We lost the No. 1 spot to [John] Force and the No. 2 spot to Tasca [Bob Tasca III]. And I think Guido was trying to run a little quicker, but he didn’t have time to make a big change at the end.”
FORMER SEATTLE TRACK OPERATOR REMEMBERED - Jason Fiorito is one of the new sports commissioners with the Seattle Sports Commission, and earlier this year he attended the Sports Commission Sportsman of the Year Awards. He said he was pleased to see the late Jim Rockstad’s picture among, in his words, “sporting legends that we lost over last year.” Rockstad operated this venue for 25 years, when it was named Seattle International Raceway, and he passed away in June 2022. Fiorito said, “Even the Sports Commission paid tribute to Jim at their annual banquet. And I was happy to see that he had earned his place in Pacific Northwest Sporting Legends.”
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK - SMITH TOP FUEL TEAM RACING WITH HEAVY HEARTS, SCHUMACHER REFLECTS ON ANNIVERSARY OF DEBUT WITH MAYNARD FAMILY, FIORITO’S TECH-CAMPUS PLAN FOR PACIFIC RACEWAYS TAKING SHAPE
DON’T OVERLOOK VETERAN DRIVER – Unless you went into the pits Friday at Pacific Raceways during the Flav-R-Pac NHRA Northwest Nationals and noticed the cluster of folks in black shirts around a basic dragster beside a rather non-descript hauler parked on the far edge of the Top Fuel enclave, you didn’t get to see team owner-driver Ron Smith.
The 80-year-old retired Boeing engineer from Kapowsin, Wash., didn’t make a pass in Friday’s lone qualifying session. For some reason, the car wasn’t ready, despite the diligent attention everyone – including July 14 Lucas Oil Series Top Alcohol Dragster Division 6 race winner Kim Parker – was lavishing on it. But the hearts of the driver and crew member Harold Goens still need a bit of tuning, when right now a fix isn’t readily available.
Goens is Smith’s son-in-law, and both still are reeling from the loss in April of Smith’s daughter and Goens’ wife Ronnell from a brain aneurysm. They had experienced the same situation with Smith’s wife nine years before. She, too, had suffered a brain aneurysm, was airlifted to Seattle trauma center Harborview Hospital, and a week later was taken off life support. This is new territory, racing without Ronnell.
And Smith had felt so lucky to have enjoyed his daughter, a forestry worker alongside her husband, especially for the past quarter-century or so. “When she was in her twenties,” Parker said, “she had gotten hit by a car that was going 60 miles an hour. She was in a crosswalk. I think she was 20, 21 years old and barely made it through that. So he said, ‘I was just lucky to have another 25 years with her.’”
Recently, while enjoying a dinner that revolved around Diet Coke and red licorice, Smith was starting to fill out his tech card and make sure all the crew passes for this event were in order. And he sighed, “I can’t do this.” He asked Parker, his longtime five-minutes-away neighbor from the nearby town of Graham, Wash., and her A/Fuel dragster-driver husband Randy for help. And Kim Parker asked him, “Do you think you're going to be OK to drive?” Smith said yes.
Smith, who’ll turn 81 in October but hits the race shop and gym daily (and participates in an aerobics class regularly), has a new nostalgia Funny Car in addition to the dragster that he’s been racing for about 60 years to keep his mind occupied. But Goens doesn’t have all that. So they’re supporting each other in their “new normal” without Ronnell.
It has been hard to be Ron Smith in the first place because as Parker said, “They only do this once a year, and things get out of practice when you don't do it more.” The Smith team occasionally misses its one opportunity or struggles through it.
For example, their first round of eliminations here last season was a bit chaotic. The puke tank, which looks like a big vacuum cleaner on the back of the car, catches all the oil that might blow onto the valve covers. The team neglected to install it before the run.
"So they were just going to tow the car back to the pit," Parker said. "And I'm like, ‘Well, get him in [belt him into the seat] and go get it. It only takes a second, a minute maybe, to strap it on in the car.’"
Ultimately, they overlooked another vital detail. Never mind the blow-by, the valve covers weren’t serviced properly on one side. The job on one side got done and not on the other. “One of the valve covers was not on tight. It wasn't tightened at all. It was just set on there,” Parker said. “So after the burnout, it was leaking, and we got shut off.”
In Smith’s defense, Parker said, “People have no idea what it takes to run any of the cars out here. Just to get to the track is a whole process of going through everything and stocking everything and working on the car. And that takes a long time.”
Smith might not go to his Boeing job anymore, but Parker drives a school bus in Puyallup, Wash., when the school year is in session.
Parker said she was concerned at first about Smith’s ability to steer the Funny Car:
“When he got the Funny Car, I thought, ‘OK, he's not driven a short car before.’ You had to shift once. And I was honestly a little bit worried, and I looked in at him, I'm like, ‘Oh no, that's game face.’ He drove it just fine and after his first pass, he mentioned “a little bit of clutch dust in there” in passing. So the new experience didn’t faze him.
“He's good at both,” Parker said. “It takes such a huge budget to run one of these, and he's frugal. He always has been. But he's happy with running once a year. I always would try to get him to come to Vegas and he's like, ‘No, I don't want to do that. I don't want to do that. It's too far.’ He's good running here and in Spokane. He ran in IHRA for a long time. He's got quite a decorated past in the fuel car. So he's won quite a few races, and he just still wants to come hit the throttle. And a lot of people are like, ‘Well, why does he even bother? Why bother doing that?’ What else is he going to do, read the paper and sit around all day?
"He's an engineer, so his mind is busy all of the time. He's in the shop every single day. So when we're done here, we're going to take that motor out of the dragster, put it in the funny car, and then go, come up here and do something,” she said. “We didn't finish his license. He needs one more full pull. When he lets his foot off, he grabs the brake. And I'm like, ‘You're not all the way down the track yet. You haven't run a quarter-mile. He’s used to 1,000 feet.” The NHRA shortened the course for the Top Fuel and Funny Car classes from 1,320 feet (a quarter-mile) to 1,000 feet in 2008, for safety concerns.
Smith has corrected one thing that has made it difficult to be Ron Smith, He has gotten Parker to stop calling him “Grandma Ron.”
She said with a laugh, “Worrywart Grandma Ron, after he drove the Funny Car a couple of times, he said, ‘Now can you stop calling me Grandma?’" She has called him that “for as long as I can remember,” she said. “He's like a little old lady. He gets so wound up, not so much anymore now that he's getting older.” She said Smith and crew chief Gus Foster, who have worked together since around 1969 or 1970 “argue like two old ladies. They’ve been together forever.”
If Smith is a “grandma,” he’s more like the Jan-and-Dean-song character: The Little Old Lady From Pasadena” who can’t keep her foot off the accelerator.
FLASHES OF BRILLIANCE - Doug Kalitta has showed flashes of some good things this season in his Kalitta Motorsports Top Fuel Dragster.
Kalitta qualified No. 1 in Phoenix and won the #2Fast2Tasty NHRA Challenge in the Valley of the Sun as well.
Last Sunday at the Mile-High Nationals in Denver, Kalitta advanced to his first final round of the year before losing to Clay Millican.
Kalitta carried that momentum Friday as he took the provisional No. 1 qualifying spot with a 3.753-second elapsed time at 327.66 mph at the Flav-R-Pac NHRA Northwest Nationals at Pacific Raceway in Seattle.
“(The dragster) left strong and the boys, Alan (Johnson) and the guys are really working at our consistency and trying to (get us) to qualify good and it is nice to qualifying towards the front for sure and we are obviously hoping that time holds up for (Saturday), but it is too early with just one run,” Kalitta said. “We are really optimistic for the weekend.
If Kalitta’s position holds it will be his 53rd No. 1 qualifier of his career. He also chasing his elusive 50th career win.
Kalitta’s last captured a Wally in 2020 when he beat Austin Prock in Pomona, Calif. It was the third consecutive NHRA Winternationals title for him.
“It has been a dry spell, there’s no doubt about it,” Kalitta said. “Obviously I’m very proud of what we have accomplished to get to 49 (wins) and I would love to get to 50. You try not to make too big deal out of it, but it is certainly getting to that point, three years. We will just keep digging. Connie (Kalitta) is supporting my car and the other two cars, and we get the best equipment that we can think to buy and get the best guys tunning the cars with Alan and Brian (Husen) tuning my car. It is just a matter of hopefully all the stars lining up one day and making it to the final and getting another win.”
‘KNOW THAT WE’LL BE CHAMPS AGAIN’ – Things aren’t always what they seem. Tony Schumacher knows that, and that’s why he’s patient and methodical ... and a wee bit frustrated when he hears the uninformed chatter about his Top Fuel future and whether he, who has won 86 times, can win a race again.
"We didn't have the same team last year. I had horses**** parts last year. The car was junk. There was no way to win in that thing. We won this race here by the other car [Brittany Force’s] smoking the tires. We needed people to fall on their swords to win. But it's all new stuff now. And it's not stuff they used. It's a lot of DSR parts they didn't use before. So it's figuring 'em out,” he said.
Of his current team – which is led by Mike Neff, Phil Shuler and Jon Schaffer – Schumacher said, “Anyone that's ever worked with them knows that they're really good at what they do. And once they get there, they'll hold it for a long, long time. In 2018, when [Neff] came over, we were not very good at the first half of the year. Second half of the year, we ran low E.T. mostly every run. So it took that much time. That was the last year of the Army, so we were under a lot of pressure to figure this out. The first six or seven or races -- I don't even remember how many it was -- they had parts in the car that they couldn't figure out. They couldn’t figure out how to make power. It was just different, new to them. And when they figured it out, Chicago, it made massive power, and then they started backing it up. We held it together and we dominated at the last half, finished No. 2 [in the standings], and we were low E.T. on the last run of the year.
“So we'll get it right,” he said. The 2023 team’s mentality, he said, is “We got to beat ‘em, take 'em out, instead of just, ‘Aw, we'll get close enough to win some rounds.’ That's not what they're doing. I know their goal. I got to work with them before, so they will be good -– not ‘OK’ –- good. That's what we hired those guys for.
“I know that we'll be champs again,” Schumacher said. “And I know that we'll win races. And I still get to drive a damn race car. I put this whole deal [with SCAG Power Equipment] together. It was cool. I think that was a very special part of it. For the first time, I actually assembled the team. I actually assembled the sponsor. I brought it. I represent a great company that has fallen in love with the sport, and I couldn't be any prouder than that.”
Schumacher has seen Joe Maynard, like SCAG (who’s represented on Tim Wilkerson’s Funny Car and Erica Enders’ Pro Stock car), drill deeper into the sport since he first indulged wife Cathi (who passed away in June) by investing in the eight-time series champion. He has seen Maynard fund part of Wilkerson’s operation, and he has seen Maynard enter a business agreement with his on-track rival Justin Ashley.
He indicated he has sifted fact from fear and made his peace with the reality that Maynard has aligned himself also with Ashley.
“I'm not even worried about that because this is their home,” Schumacher said, nodding to his JCM Racing pit area. “This is their home, their lounge. This is their spot.
“I have talks with Joe about it. I've talked with Randy [SCAG executive Gloede] about it. I bring up things like’ Days of Thunder’ when Tom Cruise, when they hire a new guy and he goes, ‘Who are you going to be pulling for when it comes down to the [end]?’ And I'll bring that up, too.” But he said he knows that “this budget doesn't leave this [organization]. Not one penny goes to fund something else.
“My dad [one-time mega team owner Don Schumacher], he was very good at saying, ‘Well, it's all in one.’ We funded a lot of cars, and they had to race against me. This will not be that situation. Not a dollar of this car will go to fund a car trying to beat me. Doesn't make Justin my teammate because Joe owns it. I love the guy. I think he's a great driver. I think [crew chief] Mike Green [with whom Schumacher earned two titles], the whole team, is great. But what makes him a teammate in NASCAR is being able to draft with someone. What can anyone out here do? We can't even share information. They're a Toyota car,” he said.
“So Joe [can buy a stake in] two cars or fund five. We need more cars out here. We're looking at 13 cars in a Top Fuel field. I wish everybody out here had a couple. But they don't, because it's an expensive sport. So that doesn't bother me that there's other stuff out there. I'm proud of Joe for jumping in and helping,” Schumacher said. “We wouldn't want to see Justin actually parked it halfway through the year. We want him out. So, well true. Joe's doing a good job at that stuff. None of that crap bothers me and the way I drive a car. If I helped -– and I feel like I did, I feel like I helped by finding SCAG –- great. I think SCAG has done a magnificent job spreading a little bit out.”
GET HEALTHY WEEKEND - Last weekend at the Mile-High Nationals in Denver was forgettable for Bob Tasca III.
The veteran qualified strong – in the No. 3 position – and then lost a pedal fest to Cruz Pedregon in the first round.
Tasca is feeling healthier and trying to flip the script at the Flav-R-Pac NHRA Northwest Nationals at Pacific Raceway in Seattle.
Tasca took the provisional No. 1 qualifying spot Friday with a 3.964-second lap at 320.13 mph.
If Tasca’s No. 1 position holds through Saturday it will be the 13th No. 1 qualifier of his career and second this season and he also was No. 1 in Charlotte, N.C., earlier this year.
“Well, I tell you, I'm feeling a whole lot better than I did last weekend,” Tasca said. “I was under the weather; the race car was a little bit under the weather. Come to Seattle, we did so good here during qualifying last year, and we got snake bit in the first round. But what I was really happy about that run ... I always ask the crew chiefs, ‘What is it going to run?’ Aaron (Brooks) goes, ‘It'll run 96.’
“You saw (John) Force run 98, and you knew 96 was going to be a great run out there. It ran 96. It was so smooth, dead straight, just an awesome run. Coming from Denver where you think it's going to blow up literally the entire time, you're in the car the way it sounds, and you come back to sea level and these things just sound incredible. So, a good way to start.”
Tasca knows his team will have to step it up Saturday – especially in Q3 – if it wants to stay as the No. 1 qualifier.
“I think you'll see more of the same in Q2,” he said. “Then Q3 will be the throw-down run. I certainly don't expect this to hold for number one (Saturday) night, but I fully expect us to pick up in the last session, so we'll see what we can do.”
During the offseason, Tasca added new crew chiefs Brooks and Todd Okuhara and has been thrilled with how things have gone so far in his Ford Funny Car. Tasca arrived in Seattle sixth in the points standings on the strength of one win and three No. 1 qualifiers.
“I came out of the first five races, I didn't have a win, but I was absolutely elated,” Tasca said. “Couple number one qualifiers. The car just showed incredible performance when the conditions were good, which is what you have to do to win the championship. Then you come to the summer months, you say, okay. You got to stay alive, right? You got to go rounds. You got to keep the car moving up the ladder to get ready for the Indy run. To come out here on one of the hottest tracks we've seen all year and go to the top of the page gives us a lot of confidence for the next five races. We're going to see some hot weather racing coming up.”
Tasca acknowledged Seattle’s conditions are little bit unpredictable.
“Seattle's always had funky weather,” Tasca said. “You never know what you're going to get when you come here. I think the conditions are very similar now as what they were last year. It's always kind of hot here. It can be cloudy occasionally. But every time I've come here, the majority of my career, it's been beautiful.”
The Western Swing usually is Denver, Sonoma, Calif., and Seattle but the order changed this season.
“Just make sure you don't get on the wrong flight,” Tasca said about the change in order of the Swing. “You're so used to going to California. You're halfway there, and you forgot you're supposed to go to Seattle. But no, it's different. Once you leave Denver, anything is more normal than Denver. It's great to be here. It's going to be great to finish it off in Sonoma.”
Tasca did take a moment to gush about his co-crew chiefs – Brooks and Okuhara.
“I've never smiled so much in my whole career driving,” Tasca said. “I just absolutely love racing with Todd and Aaron. It's always a dynamic ... There's a lot of talented people out here. The problem is chemistry, team chemistry. You see it in business, you see it in racing, you see it in basketball, any sport. If the chemistry's right, ordinary people can do extraordinary things. I can tell you Todd and Aaron and the whole team have an incredible chemistry, very different than last year.
“I love the dynamic between the two. I was a little unsure when you put something like this together last minute. I wasn't planning on doing what I did. I can tell you I couldn't be more impressed with the level of effort and chemistry that is on our team right now. You've seen it all year long, and I promise you the best is yet to come for this team. I promise you that.”
This season sellout crowds have been common at NHRA national events – which hasn’t been lost on Tasca.
“Hey, listen, you leave these races and Sundays and Saturdays, and you see the stands full,” he said. “As a driver sitting in the car, that's why we're here. We're not here to race ourselves. When you see the crowds and the Denver crowd was so bittersweet to see that many people there on the last event, but that place packs them in every single year. And no different than Seattle. This place will be packed (Saturday) and Sunday. It's why we're here. I think it's a tribute to the sport and how we're growing inside out, this sport, from the grassroot fans throughout. We'll see the same thing in Sonoma. Sonoma packs them in, and it'll be a fun summer swing.”
KNOCKING ON 200'S DOOR - It’s as if fate was saving it for a big stage. The NHRA rolls into Pacific Raceways this weekend for the Northwest Nationals, and the milestone is still available for one of the Toyota Gazoo Racing North America drivers to claim.
Who wants to win race No. 200 for the manufacturer, who first claimed victory on February 29, 2004, at the K&N Filters Winternationals at Pomona Raceway, when Jerry Tolliver defeated Gary Densham in the final round.
Justin Ashley scored win No. 199 at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals in Norwalk, Ohio. Still, he and his Toyota counterparts were shut out in the momentous NHRA Mile High Nationals in Denver, Co. As much as he hopes to win No. 200, he will have to hope for an early loss for his factory Funny Car teammates or a change in the NHRA’s final round schedule where the dragsters usually run last.
Ashley has said he certainly would love to have the honor, but as long as one of his Toyota teammates gets to celebrate, he’s okay with it.
“It would mean the world to me to win the 200th race for Toyota in the NHRA,” Ashley said. “Every race is prestigious, but to be able to do that for Toyota, such a prestigious organization, would really mean the world to me and our entire team.”
If oddsmakers in Vegas were to lay down a betting line, defending Funny Car champion Ron Capps, the newest driver to the Toyota party with his NAPA Auto Parts Toyota GR Supra entry, has the best logical chance with one victory and four final rounds. He currently sits second in the NHRA championship points.
“To be able to give Toyota a hallmark win like that would be epic,” Capps said.
Alexis DeJoria, the longest-running Toyota Funny Car driver, is right there with Capps, as she ranks third in one of her best career seasons to date. She has three final rounds thus far this season.
“To be the 200th winner for Toyota would be incredible. I would love to be able to do that for Toyota and our team,” DeJoria said.
If substance gives the best chance, the Top Fuel dragster drivers have notched 150 wins. Leading the charge in this class are Antron Brown with 56 wins, Larry Dixon with 19, and Shawn Langdon with 15 wins.
The Funny Car drivers stand at 49 wins. Cruz Pedregon leads the pack with 13 wins, J.R. Todd with ten wins, and Del Worsham with nine wins.
Toyota series champions include Cruz Pedregon (Funny Car, 2008), Larry Dixon (Top Fuel, 2010), Del Worsham (Top Fuel, 2011, and Funny Car, 2015), Antron Brown (Top Fuel, 2012, 2015, 2016), Shawn Langdon (Top Fuel, 2013), J.R. Todd (Funny Car, 2018), and Ron Capps (Funny Car, 2022).
“It would be huge if we could definitely get into the books with that 200th win for Toyota,” Brown said. “Just for the history with how long they have been out here and for how many years we’ve been racing with Toyota since 2008. There is a lot of history there, and I think it would be monumental to go down in the record books being the 200th winner for Team Toyota. Toyota Racing, throughout our history, I know that we’ve had a lot of accolades, and we won a lot of races together.
FIRST TIME IS THE RIGHT TIME - In the first appearance for Pro Stock Motorcycle at Pacific Raceways, points leader Gaige Herrera made a great first impression, going to the top spot with a run of 6.767 at 198.09 Vance & Hines/Mission Foods Suzuki. Coming off his impressive victory in Denver, Herrera kept rolling in his debut in Seattle as he looks to pick up his sixth No. 1 qualifier of the year. By making the first appearance in Seattle, there’s a chance for the first official sweep of the Western Swing and Herrera can be the one to do it after winning in Denver.
"For us to come out with the win (in Denver), we were definitely in awe," said Herrera, who scored his fourth win of the season there. 'I’m glad to be back as the provisional No. 1 and hopefully we're going to hold on to them tomorrow.
"The run did not feel good at all. When I left a line it went left, and then I had to correct it. It felt like in third gear it kind of went left again, so I corrected again. It gives me confidence that we can go even quicker tomorrow."
Herrera’s teammate, Eddie Krawiec, is second with a 6.776 at 198.82. He is also seeking his 50th career win. Steve Johnson is third after going 6.809 at 195.45.