2023 NHRA READING NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
Competition Plus’ Water-Cooler Topics From The Pep Boys NHRA Nationals in Reading, Pa.
1 – KALITTA GETS HIS 50TH WIN - Whoever said getting your first win was the hardest obviously never had to seal the deal on their 50th. It took only three years, but Doug Kalitta won his milestone victory on Sunday in Reading, Pa., stopping newly christened points leader Steve Torrence in the final round.
Kalitta could only smile as FoxSports top-end reporter Amanda Busick reminded him that it had been 1,079 days since he held a Wally. Ironically, it was Torrence whom he beat for race win No. 49 back in 2020. Torrence returned the favor earlier this season in Seattle.
If speed equates to horsepower, Kalitta’s 336.99 mph run in the final spoke volumes. He ran a 3.662 elapsed time. Not bad for a backup car.
“It’s been huge, and [team owner] Connie [Kalitta] has always had my back,” Kalitta said. “I love that guy and appreciate all he does for all three of our cars. Getting to win with [tuner] Alan Johnson has been big on my list.”
Kalitta was forced into a backup car when a slick on his Mac Tools-sponsored canopied dragster inexplicably failed. He returned to his conventional cockpit dragster and laid down the gauntlet all day.
“Apparently, this car wanted to get out of the trailer and prove what it could do,” Kalitta said. “We were real fortunate to have a backup car like this.”
2. HIGHT WINS THE RACE AND CALLS HIS SHOT - Robert Hight has been trying to win a national eventbfor Cornwell Tools. And he finally got the job done, beating his 20th different opponent, ChadbGreen, in 100 career final rounds.
Hight ran his second-quickest pass of the weekend, posting a 3.854, 330.39 to easily outrun Green’s 3.928, 327.27 for his 64th career victory. He was the picture of consistency, qualifying with a 3.87, then posting another 3.87, a 3.86, and two 3.85s.
“You can look back to last year, and we were leading the points coming into the Countdown, won this race but didn’t get it done in the end,” Hight said. “We are going to celebrate today, but we have a lot of work to do. We are focused. This team is coming into its own at the right time.”
In a scene reminiscent of Babe Ruth calling his shot, Hight, an avid baseball fan, threw down.
“We have to get our act together; we are going to win Charlotte,” Hight said.
3. MATT HARTFORD'S WONDERFUL, JOYOUS ROAD TO THE WINNER'S CIRCLE - Matt Hartford has had to work a lot easier for every one of his seven wins to the point in his Pro Stock career. He picked up No. 8 by beating Kyle Koretsky in the final round.
Seven days earlier, Hartford was rushed to the hospital with appendicitis. Then, once he got to Reading, his Total Seal-sponsored Camaro developed similar symptoms and had to be rushed to Ron Breslar’s nearby body shop (thanks to Rob’s towing) on Saturday night to fix its ills. Then Hartford, just two weeks after winning the NHRA U.S. Nationals from the No. 1 spot, struggled to qualify, landing 13th quickest.
For only the first time in a two-wide race, since Dave Connolly won the 2006 NHRA Nationals in Brainerd, Minn., a driver won a national event from the No. 13 spot.
“You get your appendix out, and seven days later, you are in a race car,” Hartford said. “The car won’t run, and we have all kinds of electrical issues. I just can’t believe it.”
4. SMITH HIRES HIS OPPONENTS' ASSASSIN AND HIS VICTIM - There was likely not a soul left on the property at Maple Grove Raceway who believed Matt Smith would lose the final round against a rider with whom he’d brought in as a blocker.
Chip Ellis, as talented of a rider as there is in Pro Stock Motorcycle, showed such as he left the starting line with a .400 reaction time, compared to Smith’s .076. Ellis led every increment down the track and was quicker in a losing effort. Even Smith admitted Ellis had the better bike. He had the better bike; he just didn’t own it.
“We still gotta get our 60-foots down,” Smith said after the win.
In particular, Ellis had a 1.045-second 60-foot, an incremental Smith said he needs to overtake Gaige Herrera as the rider to beat in the class. Ellis ran a 6.727, which lost to Smith’s 6.807
Clearly, Smith was playing with a stacked deck after the second round. Three of the four bikes in the Pro Stock Motorcycle semi-finals belonged to Matt Smith Racing.
“Personally, my bike’s still not the bike I need out here to win a championship, to win the seventh championship,” Smith said. “The bike Chip’s on it can win the championship, so we are going to put Angie on that bike for the remainder of the year. Chip’s going to come ride her bike at Charlotte and see if we can fix that bike somehow. But we just got to get my bike better.”
Smith found a way to make his bike better with strength in numbers.
5 – CAUSE OF TIRE FAILURES REMAINS A MYSTERY FOR DOUG KALITTA - Mac Tools dragster driver Doug Kalitta is back in an open-cockpit car – but not by choice. The Countdown contender experienced a tire-shredding incident Saturday during the final qualifying session as he completed his 3.748-second, 332.10-mph pass. The right rear tire tore apart and damaged the rear wing and the chassis. That forced his team to turn to its back-up car.
“The tire did not fault. There was nothing wrong with the tire,” Kalitta Motorsports General Manager Chad Head said. “The car did not have any malfunctions on the run, but something caused the tire to explode. We do not know what caused the tire explosion.”
The last-minute change didn’t seem to affect Kalitta. In his opening-round match-up against Josh Hart, he set low elapsed time of the meet with a 3.658-second pass at 335.73 mph. (That was quicker than No. 1 qualifier Justin Ashley’s 3.687 seconds.) In the second round, Kalitta ran down Kalitta Motorsports teammate Shawn Langdon and won by seven-thousandths of a second.
In the only pass that weather permitted after the three-hour rain delay, Kalitta knocked off Leah Pruett to reach his third final round in seven races. After another brief stoppage, Tony Schumacher and Steve Torrence rolled to the line for their semifinal match to see who would face Kalitta in the final. Then it began to rain again. And track conditions by then had deteriorated.
“I’m super-excited. My guys gave me a great car,” Kalitta said. “There’s some seriously close racing going on here. It’s time to step up, get up on the wheel.” After his first-round victory, he said, “I wasn’t sure what to expect. It has a different look from [inside], not having the canopy. It felt good. It’s one of my old faithful cars.”
Langdon’s Kalitta Air Careers dragster team worked late into Saturday night to make this back- up car faithful again for the 49-time winner. Meanwhile, a truck already was on its way from the Ypsilanti, Mich., shop to retrieve the disabled primary car. Kalitta might not have the canopy- equipped car ready for next weekend’s race at Charlotte.
6 – SLEW OF TITLE CONTENDERS LOSE EARLY - Eight of the 12 Countdown qualifiers lost in the first two rounds Sunday. Eliminated in the first round at this first Countdown race were the Nos. 7, 8, 9 and 10 drivers – (in order) Mike Salinas, Austin Prock, Clay Millican, and Josh Hart. Joining them on the sidelines in Round 2 were top-seeded Justin Ashley, No. 3 Antron Brown, No. 5 Brittany Force, and No. 11 Shawn Langdon. That left Countdown participants Tony Schumacher, Steve Torrence, Leah Pruett, and Doug Kalitta in the Final Four.
Ashley, determined not to let his points lead slip from his grasp like it did in last year’s Countdown, began the playoffs as Tony Schumacher’s breakout victim. After Schumacher snapped a streak of seven first-round losses to score one of the biggest upsets of the day at Ashley’s expense, Ashley said, “It’s disappointing. Ultimately, for that team, I’m happy for them. They’ve been struggling all year. This is a part of racing; as disappointing as it is, this sport has so many ups and downs.”
Among the Funny Car class title contenders, only Cruz Pedregon and J.R. Todd made opening- round exits. Round 2 took a heavier toll. Tim Wilkerson, John Force, and Alexis De Joria bowed out. And in a monster match-up, No. 3-ranked Robert Hight defeated No. 2 Matt Hagan by one ten-thousandths of a second.
Hight said of Hagan and his Dodge, “That’s the car you’re going to have to beat for the championship. You’re going to have to beat him week in and week out. You don’t expect to run those guys in the second round. But when those opportunities come up, you’ve got to get it done.”
In the Pro Stock class, points leader Dallas Glenn hadn’t red-lit all season, but this first one Sunday against Round 1 opponent Cristian Cuadra – by a mere one-thousandth of a second – cost him.
The biggest news in the Pro Stock Motorcycle category up until the final round was Jianna Evaristo’s second-round defeat of Mr. Everything Gaige Herrera. However, the Nos. 4-8 racers (Eddie Krawiec, Angie Smith, Steve Johnson, Chase Van Sant, and Marc Ingwersen) and No. 10 Kelly Clontz also were gone by Round 2.
7 – TONY STEWART EARNS REMATCH WITH MADISON PAYNE - Tony Stewart advanced Sunday to the final round of the Top Alcohol Dragster competition against Madison Payne in a rematch of their fall 2022 Las Vegas final. She won that one.
Monday, he evened the score by winning the race and overtaking the championship points lead.
“I always have liked the opportunity to hopefully get a point lead, at least be in the lead,” Stewart said. “Even if it’s by one point, just the fact that you’re in the point lead, I feel like carries weight. And to have a weekend like we had this weekend, we battled through a lot to get back there, but this is huge. I mean, there’s not, but a handful of races left this year, so we’re trying to make the most out of every one of them that we’re claiming, which we’re claiming all but one more this year. So we’ll have one throwaway race that we can’t claim, but this was one that we obviously did, and getting maximum points is a huge deal for us on the standings.
Stewart won the Division 1 race here at Maple Grove Raceway in August and a Division 3 event in May at Indianapolis.
9 – KORETSKY FAMILY RECEIVES KUDOS FOR ITS WORK AT MAPLE GROVE RACEWAY - In hosting its second Pep Boys Nationals, the Koretsky family of Kenny, Karen, Kenny Jr., and Kyle drew lots of praise for purchasing Maple Grove Raceway and continuing to make improvements for fans and racers.
Sportsman racer Jeff Eastburn of Elkton, Md., said, “We are so fortunate as racers to have the Koretsky family buy Maple Grove. The improvements here just keep coming. The way people are treated here is the best. We’re very lucky. I’ve known Kyle for a long time. He and both of my kids raced Jr. Dragsters many years ago. We’re lucky to be here.” He lauded “the way the place is kept. The grass is cut. Everything’s trimmed. They’ve paved some more in the field for the racers parking out there ... just an absolutely fantastic job. All the buildings are painted. They’ve added some new buildings. They’ve expanded the campground. They just keep getting better and better.”
Classy was the remark by Aaron Stanfield after he won the FlexJet Factory Stock Showdown final over Del Holbrook: “We’re lucky we have the Koretsky family to give us a place like this to race.” It came shortly after Kyle Koretsky had eliminated Stanfield in the second round of Pro Stock eliminations.
Funny Car top qualifier Bob Tasca III, a close friend and business associate of Koretsky, said the packed grandstands all weekend were “a testament to the Koretsky family for reinvesting in our sport. They’ve given the fans a best-in-class facility. And thank you to all the fans for recognizing that. They saw a taste of that last year.” He said the Koretskys “took it up a level this year. They’ll take it up a level next year.”
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK - BROWN NAVIGATES POLITICAL WORLD WITH EASE; LATINO LOVING HIS SWITCH TO PRO STOCK; ASHLEY LEARNS HIS LESSON
READING BETWEEN THE LINES - If you can read between the lines, the explanation is clear regarding Doug Kalitta’s Reading incident during Saturday’s Top Fuel qualifying at the Pep Boys NHRA Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway.
“The tire did not fault – there was nothing wrong with the tire,” Kalitta Motorsports general manager Chad Head. “The car did not have any malfunctions on the run, but something caused the tire to explode; we do not know what caused the tire explosion.”
Kalitta will head into Sunday’s eliminations with his backup dragster, a conventional (non-canopy) car. The damaged car is en route to Michigan for repairs, and it is unclear whether it will be ready for next weekend’s NHRA Carolina Nationals.
As the Mac Tools dragster completed its 3.748-second qualifying run at 332.10 mph Saturday afternoon, the right-rear tire shredded, damaging the rear wing and the chassis. - Bobby Bennett
WALKING THE LINE - Since the closure of Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in 2018, Maple Grove Raceway has been the home dragstrip for Pro Stock Motorcycle-to-Top Fuel convert Antron Brown.
And as he returns for the Pep Boys NHRA Nationals for this Countdown to the Championship launch, Brown has more than the hometown-hero vibe.
He has returned with elevated status.
Oh, he doesn’t think of himself that way at all. But that’s the truth.
The native of Chesterfield, N.J., has grown from a kid tagging along to the drag races with his father and uncle, playing with toy cars under the bleachers, into a diplomat, an eloquent ambassador for the motorsports industry.
However, he has found the common denominator between himself and Those With Lofty Titles.
“They're real people. They're all real people up there" on Capitol Hill, Brown said.
That’s how Antron Brown regards Members of Congress, the ones he is bringing together through his SEMA connections. Brown is used to traveling in a straight line for a living, but he is skilled at working with those who float about in influential circles.
“The thing about it,” Brown said, “is at the end of the day, everybody's put on this Earth for a reason. And the thing about it is everybody can relate to different people. I can't touch certain people. That person still could touch certain people. So everybody relates different, and that's what it all boils down to you. We all can touch and relate to different people in different ways, plain and simple.
“But I am a Christian. I put God first in my life in everything I do. And that's what steers my ship,” he said.
That’s one reason he isn’t intimidated by Congress and making trips to Capitol Hill. He passionately lobbied Congress last September for the RPM Act, and he accompanied fellow team owner and three-time champion driver Ron Capps and NHRA executive Kasey Coler to Washington, D.C., as representatives for the National Motorsports Coalition (NMC) to share with members of the Congressional Motorsports Caucus and other lawmakers. There they shared their insight into the massive impact the racing industry has on America’s economy. He is as well-spoken and educated as any politician on Capitol Hill, and he knows how to make his point with calm passion and a genuine interest in finding common ground, whether they’re talking automotive aftermarket issues or endangered racetracks or the daily trials of owning a racing team.
“I think what it is, is that we just need to have a meeting of minds. And I think that's something that NHRA is starting to do,” he said. “Now they're starting to go at a different level and starting getting with the state representatives and senators and getting them on board. And I think [on behalf of] a lot of these racetracks, that's the direction that we need to start going: getting them involved to actually help us fight the fight. That's what it's about.
“It's no different than we fight the fight in the RPM Act with the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency]. There's no difference in us going up back up to Capitol Hill and talking about the depreciation in the Motorsports Caucus for all the racetracks, to get certainty for [them]. [The key] is just educating and actually making the public more aware of it so we can all do this together,” Brown said. “The main thing is if we work on things together, there's nothing that we can't accomplish. And I've been seeing that now on every standpoint that we're working together.”
Brown, in his second year as a team owner, has seen it work on the NHRA level.
"It actually puts a smile to my face to see all the new creative ideas that we're having and where we're going with it. And if you want change, you all got to be in it all together. And we have that now,” he said.
He said the fresh sense of cooperation “is just from all the new people that are involved and the new ownerships that we have. Dustin Davis, he's a full supporter. Chad Head, Alan Johnson, and Steve Torrence. You have Josh Hart that's out there as a new team owner. And then you have Joe Maynard, who's came in with full force. When you start to see all these new people that are involved – Jim Head, Tony Stewart – and they're very successful in the business side of the world. Then you have all these other teams that are all members, all the professional teams are all members of PRO now, from Pro Stock cars to Funny Car to Top Fuel. And when you've seen all this stuff happening and everybody's coming together and we're putting out ideas ... you're starting to work with NHRA on a different level where we're able to work with them nonstop and have the lines of communications open nonstop. And we're able to communicate with the tracks and with other sponsors and different people, and we're able to pull it together. It is actually a breath of fresh air. And it's pretty awesome to see the dynamic of all of us coming together. Communication's key with everything.”
On a loftier level, Capitol Hill is no different, according to Brown: “You just got to understand why you're going up there. And when you go up there, all you're doing is just telling them your story and why it's important. It's plain and simple. You fight for something that you believe strongly about and just give them the reasons why. And once they see the reasons why, they start understanding. And a lot of the representatives and the senators, they relate because they're real people. They're all real people up there. When you talk to 'em, they are real people and they understand, and when they see the cause and the good that it does.
“And drag racing,” he said, “has so many benefits to people in general it’s ridiculous . . . like the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) standpoint of it. Also, motorsports is a real-world business, every aspect of it - from the marketing piece, the business side, the engineering side, the science side, the catering, the food side of it, it's got every form of it. The trucking side, I mean it's got everything you can think about. Any business across the country is tied in motorsports.
“When you look at it and you see how we conduct business and we do B2B stuff and we work with the Corporate 500 partners and sponsorships. . . when you look at it and we're able to go up there and say, ‘Hey, motor sports brings a lot to this country.’ When you look at it as a whole, it's billions and billions of dollars that we bring into this country – F1, NASCAR, NHRA, IndyCar, the amount of revenue that we do in motorsports and we bring to every area that we go to is huge. Then they start seeing that and they understand that and what it does for their counties, for their areas, and for the states, they're like, ‘We want one.’ If we could just start educating and just start going out there and just telling our story and all the great things that we do – how we have the YES program and we bring all the students out, how we help them get to the Western Techs and all the technical colleges and they get out with degrees and how we take internships on our race teams –a light switch goes off and it opens their eyes. And more and more people want to be a part of that,” he said.
Somebody asked him, ‘Hey, how do you get not drag racing?’ And he told them, “Well, when I was 16 years old, I wanted to go drag racing. I had a beat up car that I got from a junkyard, and I worked a nine-to-five job while I was going to college. And I had to pay for my own gas. Luckily, I was talented enough to go to college on a track and field scholarship, where I had to pay for the school. But I wanted to go drag racing. What I did was I took a motorcycle that was wrecked that I paid 1,500 bucks for. I saved up my own money to do it and I rebuilt it and turned it into a drag bike. And that's how I went drag racing.
“I had to work for everything that I got to do it. It wasn't handed to me. It wasn't something that just happened. If you want to do what I do, you can because drag racing has those things because you can race anything,” he said. “You might not have it now, but you can go to work. You could put a dirt bike together and put slicks on a dirt bike and drag race it and have 800 bucks into it.”
Now he’s pursuing a fourth Top Fuel championship after a successful Pro Stock Motorcycle career.
And that’s the electrifying transformation of Antron Brown.
LATINO DRIVING ‘A REAL RACE CAR’ – Eric Latino wanted to be part of the equation as a drag racer. He said he wanted to drive a car, not merely react to the dictates of one. And despite his parachutes falling out during his early Friday burnout and a 14th-place showing Friday night in a tight field, the Pro Stock team owner and class newcomer is having an exhilarating time in just his third race in the class.
Entrenched in the Pro Modified scene for a couple of decades, Latino is charting his path in his new role as KB Titan Racing principal and Pro Stock novice – all while growing his catalytic converter business, going through the process of becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen, and on occasion still racing an eighth-mile Pro Mod car in outlaw events in cooperation with Al Billes.
“I wanted to drive a real race car. What I mean by that is that I don't believe in a professional class having a trans brake and a torque converter,” he said. “You've got this car, you're in, you've got a clutch, you've got to shift five gears, so it's a lot of work.
“You know what it is ...,” said Latino, who debuted in Pro Stock at Norwalk and competed at Indianapolis. “Don’t get me wrong – no disrespect at all to the Pro Mod ... They're really cool cars. But, man, I want to drive a car. I don't want to just sit there, point straight, let go of a button, catch a good light, go down a racetrack, because after that, you're just steering the car down a racetrack.”
With a nod to his GESi Emissions Systems Chevy Camaro, Latino said, “This thing here, you've got to shift that thing at 10.5. If you go to the limiter, you're going to be slow. If you shift to 10.4, you're going to be slow. I mean, there's so much precision. They're really hard, man. It's the hardest car I've ever driven in my life. Oh, yeah, they're harder to drive than a fuel car.
“A fuel car, all they do is sit there, hold the brake, and smash the throttle, and they're gone. That's it,” he said. “This thing here, you've got to come in, and you put your first light on, and you have to set your brake pressure to a specific pressure. Hit your line lock. The other guy's doing the same thing. You've got to keep an eye on him, and then you've got to drag your car in just to put your light on. Then you've got both feet down, light comes, one foot up, shift light second, shift light third. It's just so much, honest to God.”
He said he’d like to compete at every Countdown race but that he might pass on the Midwest Nationals at St. Louis, which he called “my favorite track,” because it is the last of a three-consecutive-race string and his business demands a little more of his attention.
“My main business, I run a catalytic converter business, and I am so busy. And I got clients flying in from all over the world, and I got to be there all the time,” Latino said. "Every truck, we make emission controls for these big rigs, and then we supply all the high-performance industries. So, [for] every exhaust manufacturer, we make the EPA-compliance catalytic converters so they can put them on the car, not rob horsepower, and be emission-compliant and not go to jail. That's what I do, so they all know I race. The whole car is branded for that reason. I’m a mechanic by trade. I’ve been building race cars my whole life.”
The 2023 plan, he said, is “to do all the races, all 18. I'm going to a full year.”
THE WHAT?! HALL OF FAME? – Larry Morgan has seen a lot of things in his many years of drag racing. But he was taken aback. His friend and team owner Mark Beaver wasn’t at Maple Grove Raceway on Friday, because he was “being inducted into the North Carolina Hall of Fame.” What surprised Morgan was not that Beaver wasn’t here at Reading to see him run during the opening day of the Pep Boys Nationals, but rather that the Hall of Fame was not motorsports-related.
Beaver has been active in NASCAR racing, as well as in drag racing, but he also makes a living as a bail bondsman. And he was being recognized by the North Carolina Bail Agents Association, inducted into the NCBAA Hall of Fame. Bail bondsmen have a Hall of Fame.
“Yeah, I swear to God. That's what they said,” Morgan, who claims he’s “just having some fun” this weekend, said. “Beaver's a good guy. He's a real good guy. He's got a golf cart company, and he's a bail bondsman [and a former Drug Enforcement Agency agent]. Oh, gosh, he's got some stories. But he wants to do this. I won't let him spend a bunch of money.”
Morgan said he plans to race at Charlotte and Dallas, “but that’s enough. I work with [Frank] Manzo and [Mike] Castellana, so we’re Pro-Modding it, man. We're all over the country. I just work with Frank – the chassis and help him with whatever he needs.”
Then, laughing, he said, “I'm his b----. I’m Frank's b----. Naw, Frank and I are best friends, and I just help him with whatever I can do. He bounces stuff off my head, and I bounce it back off of his. He's as smart as there is. He's the best there is.”
As for his part-time Pro Stock gig, Morgan said he’s not here to be a spoiler: “The motor's not good enough to run real good, but it'll qualify. But that's about it.”
FOLEY FINDING FUNDING – Look for Top Fuel owner-driver Doug Foley at more races in 2024.
J.R. Pine, CEO of Alloy Employer Services, told Foley at the previous Camping World Drag Racing Series event that “there will be more races,” according to Foley.
The veteran driver said he’s unsure at this time about the number of events New Albany, Ohio-based Alloy will partner with him and co-team-owner Tim Lewis, but he said, “It won’t be a full-season. We won’t do a full season next year. We’re just not ready for that. We could do 12 to 15, but 12 to 14 is where I’d like to be.”
When Foley made the announcement in a top-end interview during the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis, his voice cracked with a bit of emotion. Foley said Saturday that was because he was full of gratitude more than anything else.
“It’s hard to find companies that want to invest, especially in smaller teams. They’ll always go to the big teams. They never go to small teams,” he said. “We were fortunate, because they had a shot at a big team, and they chose us. To us, that was important. They told us that, and it was important to us. I don’t think they were four hours into it before they realized that they had made the right decision.
“And they’re good people. We’re going to supply all the B2B side. That won’t be a problem. Monday through Thursday, we focus on that. Friday, we start focusing on this,” Foley said, nodding to his Foley & Lewis racing operation. “We’re going to do our due diligence to bring them business to justify the relationship. They’re excited about the opportunity. We’ll see how it goes.”
This weekend, Foley is sponsored by familiar marketing partner PROTECS, a project and construction management company headquartered at nearby Plymouth Meeting, Pa.
SMITH RELYING ON SONOMA DATA – What’s helping Matt Smith this weekend here at Maple Grove Raceway in Pennsylvania is something a continent away, at Sonoma, California.
The reigning and six-time Pro Stock Motorcycle champion – and No. 2-seeded bike racer in the Countdown -- said he and No. 5-ranked wife Angie Smith “did not have time to go test anywhere” following the U.S. Nationals and the end of the regular season.
“We went straight home to the shop [at King, N.C.]. We had to get five motors taken apart and checked out, and I just thought it was more important for us, being that we have three races back to back, to get the motors healthy and be ready for these three races.”
And that’s where Sonoma comes in.
Smith said, “I'm going up [to the starting line] with the stuff we ran at Sonoma. And we went 1.04 and 1.06 60-foots there, so I'm just hoping that parlays to that weather that we had there to right here. Looks like the same weather we had out there in Sonoma. As long as this track is pretty close to that, we should be pretty good with tune-up.”
Through three qualifying sessions, Matt Smith was qualified fourth on his Denso/Stockseth/MSR Suzuki and Angie Smith sixth aboard her Denso Buell V-Twin.
Servicing and prepping her Buell, he said, poses no problems or requires much shifting of mental gears.
“We're on the Suzuki this year, so that's kind of where we're at, and Angie's on the Buell, the V-Twin still. It's not bad. Last year I swapped bikes pretty regular. I went back and forth between the V-Twin and the Suzuki during the race, same races a lot of times. So, no, it's pretty fun. I like the challenge, and this is where we're at right now.”
What’s more, he’s overseeing a handful of other motorcycles.
“We got four bikes here out of our camp with me – Angie’s, Jianna’s [Evaristo’s], and Chip Ellis’, and then we also do Ron Tornow's motor. So we got five bikes total here out of 15 bikes, so not bad,” Smith said.
Conditions this weekend have Smith excited.
“The trees give you more oxygen, so a lot of times you just got to run a little bit more fuel than normally. So we've compensated for that and we should be pretty good, hopefully,” he said.
“Bikes are very critical with humidity and wind. And normally you don't have a lot of wind here (crosswinds are the worst for motorcycles), because we're kind of in the valleys. But we do have a little bit of a tailwind, maybe two or three miles an hour. So that'll help the bikes, but there's no humidity here, so we should be pretty fast,” he said.
Then Smith stuck his neck out, saying, “I still think you're going to see some really fast times. It's a good possibility that our national record of the E.T. gets set here this weekend. So I don't think the speed record will get broken, but definitely the E.T. record will probably get broken.”
Points leader Gaige Herrera set the track elapsed-time record at 6.678 seconds during Friday-night qualifying on the Maple Grove Raceway quarter-mile. But that fell short of the national record – the 6.665-second pass that Karen Stoffer set at the 2022 Gatornationals.
Smith had predicted, “To set the speed record, you have to have a pretty good tailwind like we do at Sonoma. You’ll go to probably 202, maybe a 203, but I don't think you'll see a 204, 205. If we had a tailwind, yes, you could see that, but you got to have a tailwind to go that fast.”
Matt Smith owns the national speed mark of 205.04 mph from the 2021 Sonoma Nationals. No one came close to that, although six racers, including the Smiths, topped 200 mph. The others were Gaige Herrera and Hector Arana Jr., who led the way with respective 202.45- and 201.85-mph speeds, followed by Chip Ellis and Chase Van Sant. Jianna Evaristo came close to 200 mph at 199.08.
Smith said he just likes the satisfaction of being the best: “You don't get any money or points for E.T. or speed records anymore. So, it's just saying that you're the fastest, and I can still say that I'm the fastest guy in the category right now. I like that.”
LESSON LEARNED – Top Fuel’s Justin Ashley – the points leader and the class’ top qualifier – might be in the catbird seat right now as the Countdown launches. But he knows that could change in an eyeblink.
“It’s nuts. It’s been nuts all year, not only the quality of cars but the depth of the competition,” he said of the intensity this season. “We’ve seen some e teams struggle more than we anticipated. Now so many teams have so many races under their belts and enough data and information to hit their strides at this point in the season. So whether it’s teams toward the top or teams toward the bottom of that Top 10, or Top 12, anybody can really get hot at this time of year, because they have everything they need to do so.
“Now that the points are reset,” Ashley said, “it's going to be a fight each week. Each round is going to be a battle, and every point matters.”
Ashley said he has taken last year’s experience to heart and understands what he must do to avoid the same scenario this fall. Ashley led after this race last season and after the first four Countdown events, but a pair of first-round defeats at Las Vegas, then Pomona, dropped him to second place and finally fourth.
“I definitely felt that was a lesson,” he said. “We learned a lot last year throughout the entire year, especially the back end. We were in a real good position to win that championship, and for a number of different reasons, we weren’t able to come through. We did learn a lot, both on and off the racetrack: about performance, about parts and pieces, about things that we can do better this year not to put ourselves in that same position. To a certain extent, I do think you have to lose to be able to learn how to win. We already went through that last year. That experience will prove to be valuable this time around.”
‘IT’S HARD TO EXPLAIN’ – Pro Stock Motorcycle dominator Gaige Herrera has bit of a jumble of emotions about the Countdown, but he said even he can’t articulate how it feels to have won all but two races, ruled the Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty bonus events, and captured nine No. 1 starting positions in 10 races – and top it all by once more leading the field in this Countdown to the Championship by setting and resetting the track elapsed-time record. He settled on 6.672 seconds at 202.94 mph Saturday.
“I wouldn’t say it’s gravy. It’s hard to believe the situation I’m in. It’s hard to explain how I’m really feeling about it,” he said.
“I’m actually glad for the Countdown, for sure, because – I’m not saying it’s been easy. But I’m surrounded by an awesome bike and an awesome group of people. It almost seems like gravy, like it’s easy.”
Crew chief Andrew Hines said Herrera “is solid. He's been in bigger pressure situations than a lot of these other Pro Stock Motorcycle racers have, racing for big money and credibility and all that on the line and grudge racing. This is no new territory to him. The only pressure he's getting is probably just what he thinks he's getting from us, which we're not giving him any. Let's just go out there and keep racing and turn on win lights. That's the only thing. One round at a time.”
What Herrera has been able to accomplish this season is no surprise to Hines.
“He's right where I thought he was. You can see it just in the five runs that I saw of him make at Indy there. And then what we tested with him after Vegas last year. It's like clockwork. He just does the same thing. It's easy to tune around when somebody does the same thing every time,” Hines said. “We've refined the whole package because of input he's given on the seat versus what I can see on the computer. It's a deadly package.
“I was telling my guys earlier in the year, ‘Last year we built a weapon,’ because the bike was pretty good. I said, ‘Now it's a guided missile.’”
Herrera’s season reminds Hines of his 2019 season: “My ’19 year, for sure. I just hope it ends better than my ’19 year. I didn't have the greatest Countdown, but I still walked away with a championship. I think we can have a good Countdown here.
“This bike, I've been telling everybody, it's like we're just taking it to another race, just like we have all season long. We're not expecting any different mentality going in here. We're just going to go race,” Hines said. “We've done our experimenting. Now it's time to just fine-tune what we think is the best from what we've done in the last three or four races and move on from there.”
Curiously, more than one Pro Stock Motorcycle racer has tried lately to copy Herrera’s distinctive riding style, and he said that’s “kind of overwhelming.” Herrera said that isn’t the only ingredient to what some might call his “secret sauce” of success all season long.
“It’s hard to believe people are trying to ride like I do. There’s more to it than my riding style. My riding style goes well with Andrew Hines’ tuning and vice versa. I try to be as smooth as possible and not upset the chassis in any way. I feel like that’s where my benefit has been as a rider,” he said.
“I’ve had other riders ask me what I do or try to explain it to them how I do it,” Herrera said. “It’s hard for me to explain. It’ a natural thing I’ve done for a long time, ever since the no-bar stuff. Body movement dictates 90 percent of the run. I’ve had veteran riders ask me, and it’s like, ‘Why would you ask me? You’ve been doing this for so many years.’”
Hines provided a bit of insight with that situation. He said Herrera’s Vance & Hines Mission Foods Suzuki teammate Eddie Krawiec understands “the way Gaige rides just unlocks that little bit more potential for 60 foot. That's huge in this class. We've seen runs where Gaige goes 1.06 [seconds to the 60-foot mark] and it slows it right down at the finish line. But when it goes 1.03, it speeds right back up to being ahead of the class. You've got to find that motivation to get the bike moving. We've got a great package with Gaige and how this chassis has been set up for about a year. I kind of stumbled onto this whole concoction about a year ago. It got better throughout the Countdown. It's been No. 1 qualifier 11 out of 13 races or something like that.”
Herrera knows he has “had a stellar season,” but he said he isn’t all that annoyed about the points reset after the U.S. Nationals.
“People are saying, ‘I’m sure you’re disappointed to lose all those points.’ But I actually think it’s going to light a fire under me and get me to push a little harder.”
NO NEED FOR SPEED – A number of years ago, when he won one of his class-record six Pro Stock Motorcycle championships, Andrew Hines said he was considering switching to another professional drag-racing class, maybe Top Fuel. After all, his original drag-racing plan was to compete in the short-lived Pro Stock Truck category. And as a youngster, Hines had pondered perhaps someday becoming an orthopedic surgeon.
But today, Hines is content to be exactly where he is, doing what he’s doing – tuning the Mission Foods Suzuki for Pro Stock Motorcycle phenom Gaige Herrera at the family’s Vance & Hines operation.
“You know, at this point in my career, I don't even know if I need to go racing,” Hines said. “It would be fun to go to, like, Frank Hawley’s school or Roy Hill’s school and drive a dragster or something like that. I would still love to get in a dragster, see the experience.
Hines’ final season was 2021, and he said, “Those last couple of years after I won that 19 championship, I was mentally winding myself down to be off the bike. It was just a matter of time. It was fun to pop out a bunch of 200-mile-an-hour runs and go 203.95 in that last season of ’21. I really don't miss it. I love being able to see the E.T. pop up on the board when the rider gets to the finish line. That's something I never got to experience for a very long time. It's been really good. I have no qualms about standing on the starting line. I still don't feel normal standing on the starting line. I feel like, ‘Where's my helmet and my bike?’ But it’s been OK.’
“My next push will be getting my son [Declan] into a car. Right now he's 13 years old, 5 foot 10, 150 pounds. He's already passing the bike size limit, where we really want the optimal size. He has been driving a Jr. Dragster for five years. We'll get him in a big car here in a couple of years, figure out what we can do there,” he said. “He's a good kid. The path for us will be to go four wheels, whatever it is.”
Hines said, “We'll follow the progression. I'm not going to throw him straight into an alcohol car or anything.” However, he recognizes that his son “is confident in anything he does. Right now, he's playing football, and he's a quarterback for his middle school and having fun with that. He's going to play some tournament ball here in the fall. We'll see how that goes.”
ARANA STILL GETTING USED TO VETERAN LABEL – Pro Stock Motorcycle contender Hector Arana Jr. laughed a bit at the thought of being called a seasoned veteran.
“On paper I am, but when I go up there, I still feel all the jitters and everything else,” he said. “It's crazy when you look back and they call me one of the veteran racers. And I'm like, I still feel like the young kid racing. But yeah, I've been out here doing it a while.”
Arana Jr. is a husband and father of two. “Yeah, two girls, two baby girls, Sofia and Ella,” he said. “It's the best thing ever. They're here with me this weekend, cheering me on. They grow up fast. Before you know it, they're all grown up. My oldest is four and a half. My youngest is a year and a half. But I remember this time last year – they didn't even come to the race because my youngest was just six months old. So now she's here, and it's great. They come to a few of the races. They don't go to all of them. It's definitely not easy traveling with two little kids. As they get older, I'm sure they'll do more races.
“My youngest tells me she wants to race Pro Stock Motorcycle already, but we'll see what she says [in later years],” he said.
“Everybody's got kids. All of us. So it's great. It's cool because all the kids are all around the same age. Vincent [drag-racer brother-in-law Vincent Nobile] has a baby girl. All the other Pro Stock Motorcycle racers, they all have kids around the same age. So it's great. They all get to grow up and play together at the track,” he said.
But he isn’t playing. He won the June race at Norwalk, Ohio, and was one of the few who could get the better of class steamroller Gaige Herrera this season.
Arana Jr.’s passion always has shown since he joined his champion father in the professional ranks. And being sidelined for a couple of years with funding issues has kindled that desire even more.
“Those two years were tough, but it really instills how much you love being out here, doing this sport. And it makes you work harder and it's given us the drive and extra push to do well,” he said.
It showed when he received funding from GETTRX and Steve Bryson late last year and came back out to the tour and won at Dallas and Las Vegas.
“Steve's been a Godsend. We wouldn't be out here if it wasn't for Steve and Scott Bryson and the whole GETTRX team. They're all a great team, a great family. And it just feels great working with them. They make you feel really comfortable, and you feel like family when you're with them. So it's been awesome to work with them. To be able to represent them has been just really awesome, and to do well for them is great.”
He said Lucas Oil, a longtime supporter of the team, has “good to us and they still help us out a little bit. So it's great. We're out here racing and everybody is a part of that. Everybody helps a little here and a little there. It all adds up.”
Arana Jr. excelled in a limited role in 2022.
“Last year we just came out. We had limited races, and we ran some of the races in the Countdown and we won two of them. We did really well. You get on and you have a little extra jitters, but once you start the bike up and you just do the burnout, it's like hopping on a bicycle. You just go right down the track. So, hopefully we can just continue that momentum. We're coming off of a final-round appearance in Indy, and the bike's running really well. So, just studying all our notes and trying to make the best call for the first pass, Q1 today. Because that's your baseline that sets the pace for the weekend.”
Arana, the No. 3 qualifier, will meet No. 14 starter Ron Tornow in the opening round of eliminations Sunday.
“The track's really good here and we should definitely go fast no matter what. But right now, the weather conditions are really good. There's a lot of trees here, there's a lot of oxygen. And it's cool weather and it's dry, so it should be really fast.”
Last year, Arana Jr. didn’t compete fo the full season, but, he said, “we kept doing some races here and there and just kept up with everything so we didn't fall behind. And also we had to be out there. If we weren't out there racing, we would have never picked up GETTRX. So we picked a few races to do, and now we're back out full time.”
He said next season will be “the same deal. We'll be out full-time with GETTRX.”
Arana Jr. said, “Because I live out there in Long Island, it’s a three-and-a-half-hour drive, so this is our hometown race now. With Englishtown closing down, now this is our hometown race.
And he made himself at home here this weekend.
TASCA CAPS WILD WEEK WITH TOP FUNNY CAR SPOT – What started out as a week of wild news in Funny Car racer Bob Tasca III’s world ended happily Saturday.
On the East Coast, Hurricane Lee threatened to widen its scope of destruction to include Rhode Island, Tasca’s home state and base for his automotive-dealership empire.
In the Midwest, the United Auto Workers union went on strike against America’s Big Three manufacturers – General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis – and workers walked out of three plants in Missouri, Michigan, and Ohio. That surely wasn’t a happy development for his network of stores.
And in Pennsylvania, at Maple Grove Raceway, the Funny Car class was out of the Countdown-to-the-Championship gate and vying for supremacy in what promises to be an intense drag-racing showdown.
Amid all that excitement, Tasca – a legacy figure in the Ford Motor Company’s system – made an appearance in Detroit to discuss Ford’s racing initiatives.
“We were talking about the new GT3 / GT4 / GTD race cars that Ford’s building for the IMSA series,” he said of his mission there, quick to say he isn’t personally going to dabble in road racing.
He arrived at Reading fresh from Dearborn, Mich., and successfully put any distractions behind him to secure the No. 1 qualifying position for the Pep Boys Nationals’ Sunday eliminations before an announced sellout crowd Saturday.
His performance this weekend was a continuation of what he described as “some of my best driving” that has emerged in 2023. “The car performed flawlessly.”
Tasca said Sunday’s eliminations, amended a bit because of a sketchy weather forecast with Round 1 moved up to start at 9:30 a.m. (ET), likely will be “challenging.” He said fans “could see some big-time upsets” if cool track temperatures induce tire shake. “We’ll manage conditions as we go,” he said.
As for the UAW strike, Tasca said, “I know as much as you do by reading the newspapers. It is what it is. I’m hopeful the two sides come together and this can be behind us pretty quick. No one wants to see a strike. But I don’t know any more than you know.”
As for Hurricane Lee’s teasing swipe at Tasca’s home state of Rhode Island on its way up the East Coast, Tasca’s son, Cameron Tasca, said, “There was definitely some harsh weather, a lot of rain, a lot of wind, nothing too serious. It moved through us pretty quickly. We’re very thankful for that. I think the last couple of wind strikes were [Friday]. Lucky enough, there was no damage to anything.”
Clearly, Tasca was concentrating on just one thing – and it wasn’t an auto-industry disruption or a hurricane.
“We’re here to race,” he said.
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK - ENDERS STRONG AS SHE STALKS SIXTH PRO STOCK CHAMPIONSHIP, CAPPS WARY OF FUNNY CAR NON-CONTENDERS
ENDERS CONCEDING NOTHING – Even with decorated NHRA Pro Stock veteran Greg Anderson a distant threat in the No. 7 position in the standings, current and five-time champion Erica Enders isn’t about to concede that the “old guard” of the class is ready to step aside for the young guns.
Enders, Friday’s provisional No. 1 qualifier at the Pep Boys Nationals at Reading, Pa., is aiming for a repeat victory here at Maple Grove Raceway. And after rocketing from 15th earlier in the year to third place by the end of the “regular season” at Indianapolis, she knows she can contend seriously for a sixth title that would match those of Warren Johnson. That crown would also tie her with nitro legend Kenny Bernstein and Pro Stock Motorcycle standouts Dave Schultz, Andrew Hines, and Matt Smith.
The Elite Motorsports driver of the Johnson’s Horsepowered Garage / Melling Performance / SCAG Camaro is just 32 points off Dallas Glenn’s pace.
“We have reached the point in our season where everything matters. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to this year’s Countdown. We have battled our way from 15th in points to third in just a matter of a couple months,” Enders said. “There is no doubt that the competition is tough and we are surrounded by some guys gunning for their first championship. This is where experience and heart will come into play. And I wouldn’t want to go to battle with anyone else. We are Elite for a reason, and we are ready.”
CAPPS: WATCH OUT FOR NON-CONTENDERS – Watching U.S. Nationals Top Fuel winner Antron Brown struggle and barely qualify at No. 15 at Indianapolis made an impression on Funny Car points leader Ron Capps. And that has served as a sobering reminder as the Countdown to the Championships kicks off here this weekend.
Capps said, “You [can have] the biggest budget in the world but it doesn’t matter – you may not qualify.”
Of course, then comes race day, which has its own pitfalls. At this Pep Boys Nationals, his trouble could come in the form of part-time non-contenders Blake Alexander, Terry Haddock, or Jim Campbell or occasionally appearing Cory Lee, Mike Smith, and Dave Richards.
The NAPA Auto Parts Toyota Supra driver said, “I’ve always said one of the most important cars that’s going to be tough to beat is the car that’s not in the Countdown – or, when we leave Maple Grove, it’s going to be [No.] 8, 9, 10, 11, whatever. [They] have nothing to lose.”
He said, “As a kid, I cheered for those teams. If they’re smart and they just go down the racetrack, you never know [what might happen], especially at a track like Reading. There’s no going down [the 1,000-foot course] easy on that track. You either go out there and step on everybody’s necks and throw down as a team that wants to be top or you go out and shake the tires.”
LOTS OF STRONG DRIVERS CHASING GLENN – Dallas Glenn has had enough to contend with all season long from his own KB Titan Racing teammates Greg Anderson, Camrie Caruso, Kyle Koretsky, Deric Kramer, and Eric Latino.
But he knows Elite Motorsports fields the majority of the rest of the class. Representing Elite are Aaron Stanfield, Troy Coughlin, 2017 champion Bo Butner, Jerry Don Tucker, and the Cuadra trio of dad Fernando and sons Fernando Jr. and Cristian.
Stanfield said, “We are starting the Countdown just 60 points out from the lead, so now is the time to make some big moves.” Likewise, Coughlin is amped up: “My personal goal is to stay in the moment and get up on the wheel. At Team Elite, we love this time of year. It’s what we work for.”
Jerry Don Tucker might not be in the thick of the championship chase, but the newest driver in the field also said he’s ready to help the Elite Motorsports cause: “This is what it’s all about. We are entering the final stretch of the season, and I could not be more proud of this team. When I started this adventure, I thought I knew what I was in for, but I had no idea. I’ve learned a ton. and I want more than anything to finish strong for this Outlaw Mile Hi Light Beer crew. Team Elite is ready to bring the heat.”
Butner, a multi-time sportsman-level champion, loves the occasional Lucas Oil Series appearance. But he’s forgoing that to work at a second championship. He said, “It's awesome to go back to Maple Grove Raceway. We’ve had some great times [here], including last year, when we won Super Gas after we got the trophy at Indy. We won't have the chance to go back-to-back this time in the Sportsman class, because we're putting all our efforts into Pro Stock this weekend to start the Countdown on the best foot possible.”
The Cuadra men are ready to rock, as well.
Emboldened by his career-first runner-up finish at the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis, Fernando Cuadra Jr. said,” I’m unbelievably excited to get back behind the wheel. I told my teammates that I finally felt like I could sleep again, after experiencing such a great weekend. I’ve got renewed confidence and a stronger vision for what I can accomplish in the Countdown. This Corral Boots Camaro is a mean machine. I think you can expect big things from us over the next six races.”
His brother, Cristian Cuadra, said his team is “continuing to fine-tune our car, and I think we are finding some things that will take our performance to new levels. Finishing the regular season in the top 10 was a really big deal for our team. Now that we know that we can accomplish big things, we want to turn up the heat in the Countdown.”
Their father, Fernando Cuadra, who also is qualified for the championship chase, vouched for his sons: “The Cuadra Boys are ready for the Countdown. I’m so proud of all that my sons have accomplished this season. We have adjusted the airflow on our cars and keep testing to make them better and better. We are excited to return to Reading.”
Butner said it best: “We're excited, and this is the time of year to really get excited, because anything can happen.”
HIGHT STEPPING TO PLATE WITH STRONG BAT – Robert Hight has been longing to earn a fourth Funny Car championship. That would put him in some elite company – with boss John Force and with Don Prudhomme and Kenny Bernstein, who won titles in both the Funny Car and Top Fuel categories.
Hight’s well aware that current champ Ron Capps and Tony Stewart Racing’s Matt Hagan also want to be four-time champions. What makes his desire that much more acute is the fact he led the standings for 12 straight races and after three others, never fell below No. 2 in the standings, and won eight times in 12 final rounds – then saw Ron Capps wear the 2022 crown, thanks to a three-point advantage.
The Cornwell Tools / AAA Chevy Camaro driver returns to Reading after winning this Countdown opener last year. And he’s the No. 3 seed in the Countdown behind Capps and Hagan. Hight won here also in 2011 and was top qualifier in 2015 and 2017. This season, Hight has won twice, at Phoenix in traditional format and at Charlotte in four-wide formation. He also has four No. 1 qualifiers (Joliet, Ill.; Bristol, Tenn.; Topeka; and Indianapolis). Also at the most recent event, the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis, he reigned at the $80,000-to-win Pep Boys All-Star Callout and on race day posted a semifinal finish.
“I’m ready to get this Countdown going. This Cornwell Tools team is coming around at the right moment,” Hight said. “We’ve found some consistency, the combination that [crew chief] Jimmy Prock is using, it’s responding to what he and Thomas Prock and Nathan Hildahl are doing,” Hight said. “It’s slight adjustments, and it’s running well. The progress is showing, and it’s perfect timing. Everything has reset, and we’re sitting in a good spot to really take a swing at this fourth championship.”
Maybe the odds are in his favor at Maple Grove. Hight has won the opening event of the Countdown four times and twice has won the championship after doing so. Both times the opening event was at Charlotte’s zMAXDragway, in 2009 and 2017. More important is that Hight has won more Countdown races than any other Funny Car driver -- 14 -- and he is the only driver in any category to have won the championship from a last-place start (No. 10 in 2009) and No. 1 (2019). He also won from No. 2 in 2017.
BIKE VETERAN HALL WANTS HIS GROOVE BACK – Veteran NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle racer John Hall returned to the class in 2023 and he acknowledged he’s trying to get his rhythm back.
“I haven't been on a Pro Stock bike in a little over a year, so it was kind of like just getting my groove back in there,” Hall said. “I'm starting to feel better and more comfortable now.”
Hall will try and get back on track this weekend as he competes in the Pep Boys NHRA Nationals in Reading, Pa.
Hall came back to the class to ride for Jerry Savoie’s White Alligator Racing team to ride a second motorcycle and be a teammate with Chase Van Sant. Both are riding Suzukis.
Hall is no stranger to Suzukis.
“I started out, I owned a Suzuki and I've made some test runs on it, for the first time I ever rode a Pro Stock bike, even a bar bike and then I got a deal with Star Racing in 2012,” Hall said. “I was with George and Jackie (Bryce) and that was a great opportunity. I went through that program, that one year program with them, which I felt was the most necessary thing I could do, to be trained by somebody like George Bryce on that team to be ready to go to another team. It was a great opportunity for me to go through that and something, I think, everybody should go through. He doesn't do it anymore, unfortunately. ... I learned a lot over there, to be able to go to a team like Matt Smith and win two races and come to a team like this (WAR).”
Hall has two career Pro Stock Motorcycle Wallys and there’s no question his biggest victory was the 2013 U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, driving for Matt Smith Racing.
“Yeah, I do remember it. It was a great time in my life,” Hall said. “It doesn't seem like 10 years ago. 10 years ago never seems like 10 years ago in any circumstance. That absolutely was my biggest win. That's anybody's biggest win in this sport.”
Hall took a moment to take a trip down memory lane with his Indy triumph.
“I think about how fortunate I was to actually win it and have that Wally at my house,” Hall said. “I also did win before that, that same year, I won the inaugural race in New Hampshire. So, I have two significant Wallys. Any Wally is significant, but the U.S. Nationals and an inaugural race, they're big.
“We were running Buells. I was with Matt Smith Racing in 2013 and '14 and I had successful two seasons there. I finished eighth in the points two years in a row, '13 and '14, and now I'm over here (at WAR). I'm 10 years older, obviously. 10 years slower, a little fatter and just trying to get back into my groove like I was back then.”
Hall said the reason he got back into racing was his passion for the sport.
“I love racing. I love the sport, I love the competition, and I love the people. You become family and friends with all these people and it's a little different than just normal life, that the people you're around here,” he said.
Hall’s day job is buying and selling houses, and he also owns a beer distributor company. Hall lives in New Haven, Conn.
“I grew up in Connecticut," he said. "I lived in Rhode Island for 12 years and then moved. We moved from Connecticut to Rhode Island and back to Connecticut. I've been in Connecticut now since the 1980s.”
Although Hall didn’t compete much the PSM ranks in 2022, he was still active in the motorcycle scene.
“I'd run a couple races here and there. I'd run with Blake Gann, just messing around, just to get out there,” Hall said. “But I've been racing another class, eighth-mile stuff, 4.60 at XDA, and Gaige (Herrera) was in there. Chase (Van Sant) has a 4.60 (motorcycle), Gaige goes to those races on different bikes, grudge bikes, and Pro Street stuff like that, no bar bikes, he rides, and it's just in Maryland and Virginia.”
Herrera is in his first season riding for powerhouse team Vance & Hines and has been on the dominating bike in the class, a Suzuki. He came into the six-race Countdown to the Championship, which begins in Reading, as the points leader.
Herrera has won six out of the nine PSM national events this season and has qualified No. 1 eight times.
“We just go back and forth. So, there's five races they did this year. They did six last year,” Hall said about his XDA venture. “The bikes are similar to these (Pro Stock Motorcycles). They're longer. They're nitrous bikes, so it's a lot different than their automatics. You don't have a shift light. You don't have to shift. A friend of mine was involved in it and talked me into it. I’ve been doing this (4.60) stuff for about three years, and I have my own bike. I do enjoy it. It's the same community like NHRA. It's a great group of people.
“There is absolutely a transition (from 4.60 motorcycles to Pro Stock Motorcycles),” Hall said. This (the Pro Stock Motorcycle) is faster and then you have to shift at the light. This is more precise. There's a lot more. ... You have to be really still on this bike, you can't move around, you have to hit your shift points. There's no clutch (on the 4.60 motorcycle). You let go of a button. Let go of the button, you tuck, and you go. Pro Stock Motorcycle bikes are harder to ride. Those (4.60 bikes) are harder to race.
“They are harder to race because it's the eighth mile and it's bracket racing and you don't want to break out. You're looking over. There's a lot to do in an eighth mile in 4.6 seconds. You're worried about breaking out, you're worried about where they are. You're worried about if you could let off. There's a lot to think about. This (Pro Stock Motorcycles), you just tuck and go and hit your shift points. These are hard to ride, don't get me wrong. They're just... The racing aspect of this is to get to the finish line first. You're not looking over and you have blinders on your helmet, and you're just tucked and you're going.” – Tracy Renck
TORRENCE SET FOR OPTIMUM CONDITIONS – Capco Contractors dragster driver Steve Torrence, Top Fuel’s No. 2 seed at the start of the Countdown, has his game face on.
“When you come to Reading, if you don’t bring a big stick, you’re going home real quick,” he said. “We’re coming into fall. The air’s starting to get cooler, and these hot rods, they really like to run in cool air. We’ll just have to see how low we can go. One thing we know is that it’s going to be fast and quick.
Toyota boasts the top three drivers. Torrence is sandwiched between leader Justin Ashley, who has a 30-point advantage, and Antron Brown, who’s 14 more points back.
As Torrence goes for a 55th victory and ultimately a fifth series crown, his initial anger about the Countdown format has morphed into a shrug.
“It is what it is,” he said. “It doesn’t make any difference what happened in the regular season, if you can’t bring it for the playoffs, it’s going to be a long winter. These CAPCO boys know the drill, and there’s nobody else I’d want behind me going into this fight.”
Torrence remains the lone driver in NHRA history to sweep all six playoff races. He did it in 2018, the only year in 10 visits here to Maple Grove in which he has won. He is second in Countdown Top Fuel victories with 13. And he has won at least one Countdown race in each of the past seven seasons, and that’s the sport’s longest active streak.
‘PURPOSELY EMOTIONLESS’ – For the third time, Leah Pruett has entered the Countdown among the top-four-ranked drivers – and the Tony Stewart Racing driver of the Mobil 1 dragster said, “I feel entering fourth is appropriate, given our team’s performance. My mind will be purposely emotionless, because it creates room for implementing tactics and being thorough.”
Both Pruett and husband Tony Stewart are representing Mobil 1 with their respective dragsters, she in the Top Fuel class and he in the Top Alcohol Dragster division.
“Mobil 1 and their products are such an asset to our performance. I am happy to visually show their support. The scheme is also awesome,” Pruett said of the patriotic livery.
FORCE BENEFITS FROM DRAGSTER TEST SESSION – “After a day of testing in Indy following the U.S. Nationals, our Monster Energy / Flav-R-Pac team is ready [for] the first race of Countdown,” a rejuvenated Brittany Force said. Evidently her dragster had a gremlin that crew chief Dave Grubnic chased before leaving Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park.
“We figured out some of our issues," she said, "and it was a very successful test session. We’re ready to start chasing down that No. 1 points spot. Going in No. 5 wasn’t our plan, but we’re up for the challenge.”
T-MINUS SIX AND COUNTING – Alexis DeJoria has come close to winning this year in her Bandero Toyota Supra Funny Car. She has three runner-up finishes but knows she has just “six races left and six opportunities to park our [car] in the winners circle before the season ends. Reading is the first race of the Countdown, and with the points reset, it’s really anyone’s ballgame.”
She also said she recognizes that “we need to have a strong showing this weekend and get our playoffs started on the right foot if we want to be a part of the conversation when the championship hunt heats up in a few weeks. We’ve got a great car, and we’re capable of running with the best of them. We just need everything to fall into place at the right time.”
Likewise, her friend and fellow Austin, Texas, neighbor, Top Fuel racer Tony Schumacher, has pretty much the same scenario before him. As he rebuilds his program under the JCM Racing banner with crew chiefs Mike Neff, Phil Shuler, and Jon Schafer, Schumacher is seeking his first victory of the season and first since the 2022 Seattle race in this 550th start.
“Reading always produces some of the best runs of the year. The facility is known for low E.T.s and big speeds, so it’s always a great show for the fans. Looking forward to some sellout crowds this weekend,” the five-time Maple Grove winner and three-time runner-up said.
“The Countdown starts at Maple Grove. We’re 139 points out of the lead following the reset, and I really think the car is starting to come around and reach the level of performance we expect. Now it’s time to prove it. We’ve got six more races this year to put this SCAG Dragster in the winners circle. Our goal is a top-five finish to the year so a strong weekend in Reading is crucial,” the No. 12-ranked Schumacher said.
‘IT’S TIME TO FOCUS’ – With good reason, Ron Capps, the NHRA Funny Car’s No. 1 seed in the Countdown to the Championship, said this weekend’s Pep Boys Nationals means “it’s time to focus.”
As he eyed Friday’s start of the six-race playoff at Maple Grove Raceway, near Reading, Pa., Capps said, “You could have not a bad race but you could have an ‘OK’ race and drop three or four spots [in the standings].”
He has a vulnerable 24-point lead over fellow three-time series champion Matt Hagan. And he recognizes the performance pendulum can swing in either direction. In his first two championship runs, Capps also entered the Countdown as the points leader. Last year he spoiled Robert Hight’s dream of a fourth title.
However, Capps has been ambushed, as well. In the inaugural Countdown, in 2007, he won the so-called regular season but yielded the championship to No. 3-ranked Tony Pedregon, despite winning twice in three Countdown finals and winning one-third of the year’s Funny Car trophies (8 of 24). Five years later, Capps led the Funny Car field into the Countdown and lost out to Jack Beckman after topping the leaderboard for the first three playoff events. (Ironically, he lost that lead at Reading, when it was Race No. 4 in the Countdown.) And that was in a season in which he won an enviable five times in eight final rounds.
Moreover, Capps said, “There’s a fine line in the weather we’re going to see and conditions we’re going to see. We’re going to see some sun. We’re going to see some heat Saturday and Sunday. Friday is probably the most throwdown [opportunity] we’ve seen at any track in awhile, even with the sun on that racetrack. You’re going to see different conditions. You get a little bit of cloud cover, you could see some crazy runs, even during the heat [of the day].”
Capps, the 2017 Maple Grove winner and a 76-time winner overall, owns both ends of the Maple Grove Raceway Funny Car track records with a 2019 elapsed time of 3.837 seconds and speed from that same year of 339.28 mph. That 2019 speed is the fastest at Maple Grove across all classes and is the second-fastest run in NHRA history.
He isn’t likely to rest on his accomplishments, which include winning back-to-back championships and scoring back-to-back victories to end the regular season (counting a second consecutive U.S. Nationals triumph).
“If you’re a guy on our team and you’re maybe living off last weekend, you’re going to get slapped around and you’re going to be reminded that ‘Hey – we have business to do.’ And I’m one of them.”
He did allow himself one fantasy. “I always thought we needed a race where we disconnect the computers and just go old-school, where [the crew chief] relies on me and we communicate like they did in the ’70s. That would be so much fun as a team, because we gel as a team. That would be the ultimate throwback weekend. But we’ve got to keep our feet on their necks.”
NIGHT AND DAY DIFFERENCE FOR CARUSO – Because the Camping World Drag Racing Series season doesn’t feature the Pro Stock class at every event and because it’s a long season packed with bonus and specialty races, some might have forgotten all that Tequila Comisario Chevy Camaro driver Camrie Caruso has accomplished in this second season. She hasn’t.
The newest addition to the KB Titan Racing organization said, “We made a lot of positive strides this year. We got our first win [at Phoenix] and won the Pro Stock All-Star Call-Out, but we still have a big goal. We want to win the Pro Stock world championship. This team is ready for the next six races. I am looking forward to getting back to Maple Grove Raceway for the second time and seeing if we can get another win this season. We are less than 100 points out of first place.” She’s ranked ninth in the standings.
“Earlier this season,” she said, “we lost in the first round at Gainesville and then won in Arizona. And we moved from 12th to 2nd in the points. If we can come out of the gate strong in Reading, we can get right in the mix for the Pro Stock championship. I have a great team around me, and our KB Titan Racing support is the best in the class.”
She said she has learned a lot from her 2022 season that earned her the Rookie of the Year award.
“We were spent at the end of last season and really didn’t have our best showing in the Countdown. Our team never gave up, but we were just not at our best. This season, it is like night and day. We have a whole operation supporting us, and I don’t feel like I have to do everything. I feel good, and after Indy, we made some slight adjustments to get ready for this last six-race push.”
EVARISTO FARING WELL SO FAR IN HER FIRST PLAYOFF – Pro Stock Motorcycle racer Jianna Evaristo, 26, is getting her first taste of the Countdown to the Championship intensity. And she has adapted to it quickly. In Friday’s first qualifying session, the daughter of Top Fuel racer and fifth-time title contender Mike Salinas claimed the tentative No. 3 spot in the bike-class order.
“I’m definitely excited about my first season competing in the Countdown,” Evaristo, who raced the Matt Smith Racing-powered Scrappers Suzuki, said.
“But much of that excitement comes from earning my way into the Countdown this season. We’ve experienced a few hiccups this season, too, which have hindered our capability to go rounds like we know we can, but we feel we have those issues handled, So we shouldn’t see those problems moving forward. This weekend’s event really should be good if the weather forecast holds true with cool temperatures and low humidity.
This weekend at Maple Grove Raceway, she said, she is anticipating “some fast passes, for sure, if that’s the case. My main focus for this weekend and the races through the Countdown is really not the championship. Of course, I’ll be aware of it, but I need to focus on what I need to do to maintain my consistency and do what I need to do each time I go down the track.”
She has made two semifinal appearances this season, including at the season-opening race at Florida’s Gainesville Raceway and in June at Norwalk, Ohio’s Summit Raceway Park.