2023 NHRA SONOMA NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
SUNDAY NOTEBOOK - IT'S THE TEN! 10 WATERCOOLER TOPICS FROM THE NHRA SONOMA NATIONALS
1 – Gaige Herrera Sweeps Western Swing, Sonoma Spoils
Gaige Herrera might have to rent a moving van to take home to DeMotte, Ind., all the loot from his Sonoma Raceway domination.
By Sunday evening, the Vance & Hines racer had been presented a broom for sweeping the Western Swing. Herrera wrote his name in the sport’s history book, winning by default over Matt Smith, whose bike failed to start for the final round.
The only racer left who was eligible to sweep the three-event Western Swing through Denver, Seattle, and Sonoma, Herrera became the first from the Pro Stock Motorcycle category and eighth overall to do so. He follows Top Fuel drivers Joe Amato, Cory McClenathan, Larry Dixon, Tony Schumacher, and Antron Brown, as well as John Force (Funny Car) and Greg Anderson (Pro Stock).
“You never want to win that way,” Herrera said after Smith, for the second straight race, was beaten by a $100 cam sensor that failed. “But I’ve got one bad machine. To be able to do this … I’m out of words.”
But he wasn’t empty-handed. At the top end of the racetrack, he received the broom, a winner’s hat, a medal to wear around his neck, the winner’s payout, and the traditional wine goblet filled with a Pinot selection that goes to the victors at Sonoma Raceway.
That wasn’t all of his bounty.
The day before, Herrera claimed the $15,000 jackpot in the All-Star Call-Out specialty race during qualifying as he grabbed his seventh No. 1 starting position in the class’ eight appearances on the Camping World Drag Racing Series tour. So he earned an additional trophy, a championship belt, and a hat that identified him as the No. 1 qualifier.
Within about 24 hours, Herrera was cementing his place in Pro Stock Motorcycle lore. Denver winners Clay Millican (Top Fuel) and Matt Hagan (Funny Car) both failed to win at Seattle, leaving Herrera the lone candidate to score what likely is the last Western Swing.
The Denver dragstrip, Bandimere Speedway, pushed the list of NHRA venues to drop from the schedule since 2018 to six. Gone, too, are facilities at Englishtown in New Jersey, Atlanta, Houston, and Phoenix. Still-thriving Virginia Motorsports Park, south of Richmond, opted out of the tour.
Meanwhile, for the second straight race, Matt Smith fell victim to a cam sensor. His bike refused to start, just as it had done in the semifinals at Seattle. He had no choice but to stand and watch Herrera extend his lead in the standings to 359 points ahead of No. 2 Hector Arana Jr. and 361 ahead of No. 3 Mission Suzuki teammate Eddie Krawiec.
2 – Justin Ashley Gains Top Fuel Trophy, Points Lead On Dad’s Birthday - Justin Ashley said his Phillips Connect Toyota Dragster “was on rails” after combining with Funny Car winner J.R. Todd for a Toyota double-nitro triumph Sunday.
Ashley edged Antron Brown by one-thousandth of a second (.0017) in the final round to record his fifth victory of the season in 12 events.
In the process, he regained the points lead from Steve Torrence, who held off upset-minded part-timer Ron August in a close first-round match and overcame an explosion at about just 60 feet into the 1,000-foot course that blew the supercharger off his car but lost to Antron Brown.
It was a swing this weekend of 36 points for Ashley, who entered the event four points off Torrence’s pace and emerged 32 points ahead of the Capco Contractors dragster driver.
By advancing to his 17th career final, Ashley earned his 100th elimination-round win and ran his race-day record to 25-7. It all happened on retired racer dad Mike Ashley’s birthday. Another of his victories this summer came on mom Mindy’s birthday weekend.
3 – J.R. Todd’s Elusive 20th Funny Car Victory Denies Chad Green His First - Funny Car’s 2018 series champion J.R. Todd said, “It’s been a long time since I got a trophy for anything.” Suddenly this weekend, he earned two.
Todd claimed the Wally statue for defeating hopeful first-time winner Chad Green in Sunday’s final round. It came after his Saturday victory in the Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge triumph over Blake Alexander.
For the DHL Toyota Supra driver, Sonoma Raceways is a special venue. Todd recorded a 2006 Top Fuel victory here. That day he shared the winners circle with close buddy Eric Medlen, who passed away the following March from testing-crash injuries. Sonoma Raceway was Medlen’s home track, and every year the NHRA community hosts a party in honor of Medlen to raise money fro Speedway Children’s Charities,
Todd also scored his first victory in a Funny Car here in 2017. And this breakthrough victory, his 10th overall, ended a 53-race winless streak that lasted 868 days. His previous success came at the March 2021 Gatornationals at Gainesville, Fla.
“I forgot what this is like,” Todd said of the winners circle celebration. “I’ve never had a throttle pushed down so hard as I did today. I thought it was going to go through the floorboard every run.”
He said that when he saw his win light come on, “I was cussin’ and screamin’ and everything. It was instant relief.”
It was Green’s first final-round appearance in his 40th race.
4 – Impact of Mission Foods Challenge Suddenly Becomes Apparent - After Steve Torrence drove his Capco Contractors dragster past Clay Millican to his second straight $10,000 victory in the Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge Saturday, he said, “We’re trying to close the gap Justin Ashley’s put on us, and we’re doing it one tortilla chip at a time.”
Announcers laughed at Torrence, suggesting he had forgotten he passed Ashley for the Top Fuel points lead from Ashley at Seattle. What they missed was that Torrence was alluding to the significance of the Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge, and the impact it could possibly have on Countdown seeding.
Torrence was talking about the Countdown bonus points Ashley has banked: 15 from his five Mission Challenge victories (to go along with the $50,000 in cash prizes). Torrence has six (and $20,000 extra). So for example, if the Countdown were to have started Sunday, Torrence would’ve had a four-point lead on Ashley in the standings – but Ashley would have used those 15 Countdown bonus points to claim the No. 1 seed for the six-race playoffs.
When the Misson Foods Challenge was announced, some groaned that all fans were doing was seeing a rerun of the previous race’s semifinals. Some fans – and definitely the racers – appreciated Mission Foods’ sizable investment in the sport. After all, what nitro driver wouldn’t want to compete for an extra $10,000? (Well, two or three along the way who aren’t chasing a championship chose not to, but most relished the opportunity.) But in the beginning, earning three bonus points, or two or a single bonus point, seemed useful but not all that motivating.
Soon, though, as reigning Funny Car champion Ron Capps first brought up, the payout took a back seat to the points. Points mattered maybe more than cash (which also certainly has been welcome). Capps remembered that he earned his third title last November by merely three points. And he won’t forget that he was on the wrong side of some close battles. Jack Beckman disappointed him with a two-point difference in 2012. And Gary Scelzi already, in 2005, had denied Capps by eight points (just as Robert Hight had beaten out Beckman by eight points in 2019).
Now that only three more chances remain for the nitro class before the Countdown fields are set (and fewer for the Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle class), Torrence’s comment was nothing to laugh at. It showed has awareness for the chance of a weirder-things-have-happened scenario as the cutoff race, the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis in September, approaches.
Torrence’s Top Fuel class alone has several examples of narrow title margins. Tony Schumacher edged Larry Dixon in 2009 by two points. Torrence had a three-point advantage over Doug Kalitta at the end of the 2019 season, and Antron Brown claimed his first title in 2012 by only seven points ahead of Schumacher.
And Greg Anderson took the brunt of it twice in Pro Stock, losing to Jason Line by three points in 2016 and to Bo Butner in 2017.
Torrence, already an outspoken critic of the NHRA’s points-manipulation practice, could benefit from it. But if he carries only a slight – less than 15 – point lead over Ashley, Ashley could play the Misson Foods Challenge card and begin the Countdown in first place, a seeding which gets an additional points award.
So Torrence raised the issue with his post-victory remark Saturday.
5 - Antron Brown Receives Divine Intervention - Top Fuel’s Antron Brown demonstrated his driving skill Saturday during the fourth and final qualifying session, when he guided his Matco Tools Toyota dragster cleanly down the track and through the turnout without incident after his broken rear-wing strut malfunctioned.
The downforce-controlling rear wing came loose early in his pass on the 1,000-foot Sonoma Raceway course and collapsed sideways as he completed the 308.99-mph run amazingly straight and in control. In the nearly eye-blink span of 3.896 seconds, Brown felt the dragster make “a hard move” that he thought probably was the result of a dropped cylinder, learned from crew chief Brian Corradi via the radio what the truth was, kept opposite-lane racer Brittany Force out of harm’s way, and controlled the car in almost-routine fashion in spite of its sideways-sitting, collapsed wing.
“God was definitely looking out. I was really blessed and fortunate there,” Brown said. “The cool thing is that the car stayed on the ground. It didn’t get airborne. I should’ve shut it down early; not worth it. That was a lucky one there.”
His crew had the car fixed before the No. 3 qualifier met Mike Salinas in the first round of eliminations Sunday. Brown knocked off Salinas, outrunning Salinas’ best-of-the-meet 335.65-mph speed. Then in the quarterfinals Brown dashed Brittany Force’s hopes of a repeat victory at Sonoma. He reached the final round by beating points leader Steve Torrence (who came to the semifinal after a huge explosion blew the supercharger off his dragster at the 60-foot mark). Brown lost by a narrow margin in the final against Justin Ashley.
6 - Ron Capps Ready to Represent Drag Racing - When the Camping World SRX (Superstar Racing Experience) Series made its debut, showcasing headliners from various motorsports series, noticeably absent was a drag racer. But quizzed about who they’d like the see, the inaugural-race drivers mentioned Ron Capps.
Finally, in the SRX’s third season, Capps has become the first straight-liner to receive an invitation …. unless we count SRX co-owner and co-founder Tony Stewart, who already has a trophy in the NHRA’s Top Alcohol Dragster class.
Capps, the 74-time NHRA winner, will race in SRX’s Aug. 10 Thursday Night Thunder event at Eldora Speedway, the night before the Menards NHRA Nationals opens at Topeka.
He has raced on the iconic half-mile clay oval at Rossburg, Ohio, before, in a similar invitational “Prelude To The Dream” all-star-style show. But this circle-track-experienced drag racer said, “I’m nervous. As the days get closer, I’m more and more nervous. We’re going to race at Eldora, where I raced dirt cars before with Tony Stewart – although a lot different. I’m going to approach it like I did at Eldora, driving the Prelude, and that was to try to bring somebody else’s equipment back the best I possibly can. I’m surely going to try to win. You’ve got to remember we’re up against the best race-car drivers in the world in all different categories.”
The three completed SRX races have seen NASCAR Cup Series racers take the checkered flag. Just racing NASCAR veterans has Capps concerned. He’ll be competing Aug. 10 against Hailie Deegan, Brad Keselowski, Bobby Labonte, and Ryan Newman. To add to his trepidation, he also will be up against Indianapolis 500 winners Tony Kanaan and Ryan Hunter-Reay, as well as IndyCar’s Marco Andretti. Oh, and he’ll have Stewart – who has excelled in IndyCar, NASCAR, sprints, midgets, and now drag racing – on track, too.
But Capps has tested in an IROC car and an SCRA sprint car, as he has raced in the prestigious Chili Bowl Midget Nationals at Tulsa. Still, he said he was a bit intimidated when he tested earlier this year at a small racetrack in North Carolina.
“I went and tested with SRX right after the announcement, and I went to a little track in North Carolina. I showed up. And there were [NASCAR Cup Series stars] Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Kasey Kahne, and Clint Bowyer. And here I am, first-time ever, being strapped into one of those cars, let alone going out in front of all these guys who are classic. I mean, you could say they’re six of the best stock-car drivers in the world,” Capps said.
“So it was very intimidating. And I was very much not comfortable in the car. It’s just so different from what we normally do,” he said. “We don’t get a lot of practice. That’s the only time I’ve been in the car. I haven’t even had a chance to go to Eldora or anything in the last five or six years.”
Nerves aside, Capps said, “It’s an incredible opportunity for any race-car driver. People forget there’s a lot of really good race-car drivers – I’m not talking about myself here ... I’m talking about Doug Kalitta [the 1994 USAC Midget rookie of the year and the 1994 USAC Sprint car champion] … J.R. Todd can turn left. There’s a lot of good drivers out here that do pretty well and can do well. So it was definitely a shock to be invited, very cool.”
Capps said the SRX Series, sponsored by the same company that sponsors the NHRA pro series, “is pretty much what the IROC Series was and is. It’s generated so much attention this year, going to Thursday Night Thunder, like we all used to watch when we were younger.” So he’s as excited and prepared, really, as he is apprehensive.
However, he did say, “I’ve got a lot of things stacked against me.” He said racers from other circle-track series don’t welcome drag racers all that enthusiastically.
“Every time I’ve gone to race other series and other kinds of cars, normally, the other race-car drivers don’t take too kindly to a drag racer passing ’em,” Capps said. ”And I usually get punished. They don’t like a drag racer going around ’em. And they usually get a little upset about it and try to spin you out or something. So we’re going to see how we can hold up without getting taken out and see if we can make NHRA Nation proud on that Thursday night.”
The race will be broadcast live on ESPN from 9-11 p.m. (ET) Aug. 10.
7 – Gaige Herrera Wins Inaugural Bike-Class All-Star Call-Out - Gaige Herrera was about the only Pro Stock Motorcycle racer who didn’t jump in and contribute any insults, snarky comments, trash-talking, or even good-natured ribbing during the class’ mid-week NHRA-arranged conference call to preview Saturday’s All-Star Call-Out.
But what he had to say he said in less than 21 seconds total in three rounds on the racetrack Saturday.
The Vance & Hines racer defeated Angie Smith in the final round of the bonus race to claim the $15,000 winner’s payout, the title belt, a flashy trophy, and all the bragging rights – seemingly another day at the office for him these days.
“I almost say this one tops the whole season. I really wanted this one. I was actually really nervous for the final,” Herrera said. “I liked how we were able to call out who we wanted to race. It brought me back to where I came from [grudge-style racing]. It causes rivalries between people and some tension. That made it interesting and it was a lot of fun.”
He said, "What it made it so special is that we are at Sonoma. I have raced here a lot in years past — probably 20 times — and I only lived about five to six hours from here. We always loved racing here, so we would come here a lot.”
As soon as he got off his Mission Foods Suzuki and removed his helmet, Herrera said, “I was out of breath after that. It’s awesome. I’m so happy.” He praised his Andrew Hines-led team’s hard work “they put in to make sure the bike runs to its full potential.”
He advanced to the final by defeating Chase Van Sant and Hector Arana Jr.
Angie Smith had predicted that the outcome would be a decision between the Vance & Hines team and her Matt Smith Racing (MSR)/Denso team. She was right. In fact, all Angie Smith faced were MSR or Vance & Hines opponents Saturday. She reached the final by eliminating her husband, Matt, then Herrera teammate Eddie Krawiec.
8 – Safety Safari Transforms Oil-Marred Track For Thrilling Eliminations - Mechanical trouble for one Top Dragster driver Friday night triggered a massive oildown that was to blame for a less-than-ideal qualifying show both later Friday and Saturday. But the Safety Safari team, who worked super-hard Friday night and again Saturday, were able to prepare the racing surface with two equally fast lanes for Sunday’s runoffs.
The oildown in the first 300 feet in the right lane caused the remainder of the Top Dragster class, as well as the Super Gas and Top Sportsman categories, to be postponed until Saturday. Top Fuel, Funny Car, and Pro Stock Motorcycle competitors carried on Friday night – with clearly a missed opportunity at this facility beloved for its atmospheric conditions that are favorable for records and exciting runs.
John Force Racing crew chief Dave Grubnic declared Friday night, “The lanes are so significantly different.” And the problem carried over through Saturday’s action.
In the third overall qualifying session, every single Funny Car and Top Fuel driver who ran in the right lane lost traction. (In fairness, only Matt Hagan in Funny Car and Josh Hart and Steve Torrence in Top Fuel – all in the left lane – made passes under full power in the round.)
Privately, some nitro teams applauded the Safety Safari’s efforts but complained that the proper solution would have been to scrape the track and apply fresh rubber. But Funny Car’s Cruz Pedregon said, “We all were just pushing too hard. The NHRA did a good job of prepping the track. The air’s so good these cars want to go fast, but the track has other ideas.”
Sunday’s track conditions were much improved, as Shawn Langdon indicated after his Top Fuel first-round victory: “NHRA did a good job of turning the track around and giving us equal lanes. It’s coming down to holeshots.” Grubnic, too, said, “Credit to the NHRA.”
9 – Eric Medlen Remembered - The Medlen family, originally from nearby Oakdale, Calif., along with the John Force Racing family and the entire drag-racing and northern California rodeo communities, lost Funny Car driver Eric Medlen in March 2007. But 16 years later, his memory lives on and his influence remains strong. The 15th annual Eric Medlen Nitro Night auction raised $60,000 Thursday, bringing its total contributions to Speedway Children’s Charities to $400,000. Maynard Ashley Racing principal Dustin Davis, along with Phillips Connect and the Maynard Ashley Racing marketing group, spearheaded the casual barbecue dinner and party that came after the traditional afternoon karting contest at Sonoma Raceway. Austin Prock, thanks to his pre-drag-racing career experience, dominated that race.
10 – Celebrity Chef Guy Fieri Cooks Up Intriguing Plan - Celebrity chef Guy Fieri, best known for his “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives” program, first popped up at the dragstrip when Shawn Langdon was driving for Alan Johnson Racing’s organization. And he and former AJR General Manager Brandon Bernstein – one of Medlen’s dearest friends in an informal group they and Ashley Force, Morgan Lucas, and J.R. Todd called “The Gen2Crew” – spoke Sunday about putting together a new Top Fuel team. Whether they were serious about their desire to “get the band back together,” no one knows but them.
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK - CAPPS AIMS TO REPRESENT NHRA WELL IN SRX APPEARANCE, TOP SEED HERRERA CAPTURES INAUGURAL CALL-OUT VICTORY, TORRENCE KNOWS IMPORTANCE OF BONUS-RACE POINTS, MASSIVE OILDOWN CAUSES HEADACHES
CAPPS FIRST DRAG RACER IN SRX – NHRA Funny Car owner-driver Ron Capps has the confidence expected of a 74-time winner who can tame an 11,000-horsepower, nitro-burning terror of a race car.
But that self-assurance went AWOL earlier this year, when Capps got out of his rental car at that small racetrack in North Carolina. He had competed before in circle-track events – at the Prelude To The Dream and at the Chili Bowl Midget Nationals – and had tested in IROC Series and SCRA sprint cars. However, he suddenly felt like a David surrounded by a gang of Goliaths.
The Camping World SRX (Superstar Racing Experience) Series had announced in April that Capps is the first full-time drag racer to be invited to run in the Thursday Night Thunder program. After all the “attaboys” from SRX CEO Don Hawk, the drag-racing community, and friends that he’ll be in the mix at the August 10 edition at Tony Stewart’s Eldora Speedway at Rossburg, Ohio, some trepidation set in.
“I went and tested with SRX right after the announcement, and I went to a little track in North Carolina. And I showed up. And there were Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Kasey Kahne, and Clint Bowyer. And here I am, first-time ever, being strapped into one of those cars, let alone going out in front of all these guys who are classic – I mean, you could say they’re six of the best stock-car drivers in the world,” Capps said.
“So it was very intimidating. And I was very much not comfortable in the car. It’s just so different from what we normally do,” he said. “We don’t get a lot of practice. That’s the only time I’ve been in the car. I haven’t even had a chance to go to Eldora or anything in the last five or six years.
“So I’m nervous. As the days get closer, I’m more and more nervous,” Capps said.
But he’ll regain that reassurance, knowing he has raced on Eldora’s half-mile clay oval against some of the world’s best before. “We’re going to race at Eldora, where I raced dirt cars before with Tony Stewart – although a lot different,” he said.
“I’m going to approach it like I did at Eldora, driving the Prelude, and that was to try to bring somebody else’s equipment back the best I possibly can. I’m surely going to try to win. You’ve got to remember we’re up against the best race-car drivers in the world in all different categories.”
Among his rivals Aug. 10 will be: Stewart, also an NHRA team owner and driver; IndyCar champions and Indianapolis 500 winners Tony Kanaan and Ryan Hunter-Reay and veteran Marco Andretti; and NASCAR notables Hailie Deegan, Brad Keselowski, Bobby Labonte and Ryan Newman.
“It’s an incredible opportunity for any race-car driver,” Capps said, humbled to be asked to represent the sport of drag racing. “People forget there’s a lot of really good race-car drivers – I’m not talking about myself here …I’m talking about Doug Kalitta [the 1994 USAC Midget rookie of the year and the 1994 USAC Sprint car champion] ... J.R. Todd can turn left. There’s a lot of good drivers out here that do pretty well and can do well. So it was definitely a shock to be invited, very cool.”
He said he’s excited to be a part of it, this series that, he said, “is pretty much what the IROC Series was and is. It’s generated so much attention this year, going to Thursday Night Thunder, like we all used to watch when we were younger.”
One thing Capps has noticed – something that made him say, “I’ve got a lot of things stacked against me” – is that racers from other circle-track series don’t set out the welcome mat for the straight-liners.
“Every time I’ve gone to race other series and other kinds of cars, normally, the other race-car drivers don’t take too kindly to a drag racer passing ’em,” Capps said. ”And I usually get punished. They don’t like a drag racer going around ’em. And they usually get a little upset about it and try to spin you out or something. So we’re going to see how we can hold up without getting taken out and see if we can make NHRA Nation proud on that Thursday night.”
The race, broadcast live on ESPN from 9-11 p.m. (ET) Aug. 10, takes place on the eve of the NHRA’s final visit to soon-to-close Heartland Park Topeka for the Menards Nationals.
HERRERA RAKES IN CALL-OUT SPOILS – Angie Smith’s prediction was spot-on. The inaugural Pro Stock Motorcycle All-Star Call-Out, indeed, did come down to Vance & Hines against Matt Smith Racing. Unfortunately, Vance & Hines’ Gaige Herrera defeated her in the final round to claim the $15,000 winner’s payout, the title belt, a flashy trophy, and all the bragging rights.
“I was out of breath after that,” Herrera said. “It’s awesome. I’m so happy.” He praised his Andrew Hines-led team’s hard work: “They put in to make sure the bike runs to its full potential.”
Herrera, who has won five of the class’ first seven events this season, advanced to the final by defeating Chase Van Sant and Hector Arana Jr.
All Angie Smith faced were Matt Smith Racing or Vance & Hines opponents Saturday. She reached the final by dusting off her husband, Matt, then Herrera teammate Eddie Krawiec.
PROCK GETS HIS NO. 1 - Austin Prock hung onto his first Top Fuel No. 1 qualifier this year in his Montana Brands/Rocky Mountain Twist Chevrolet dragster thanks to his 3.704 at 331.36 from Friday. He also put together a strong final run to close out qualifying on Saturday as he looks for his second win this season.
Seattle winner Steve Torrence finished second in qualifying with a 3.706 at 329.67 and Antron Brown’s 3.721 at 329.75 has him third.
“The No. 1s are very cool,” Prock said. “This is only my second in my career and this is my third season. They’re very hard to come by. When you qualify No. 1, it all goes to the race team. It shows that your crew chiefs and crew out did everybody out there and that’s very special. This was the first No. 1 qualifier for Chris Cunningham and Joe Barlam as a tandem so that was really special. Everybody is really proud of how this team is working and hopefully we can turn this into four round wins tomorrow.”
TORRENCE DIDN’T FORGET – After Steve Torrence drove his Capco Contractors Dragster to his second straight $10,000 victory in the Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge Saturday, he said, “We’re trying to close the gap Justin Ashley’s put on us, and we’re doing it one tortilla chip at a time.”
Announcers laughed at Torrence, suggesting he had forgotten he took over the Top Fuel points lead from Ashley at Seattle. But Torrence was talking about the Countdown bonus points Ashley has amassed. Ashley has 15 from his five Mission Challenge victories. Torrence has six. If the Countdown started tomorrow, Ashley would use those 15 Countdown bonus points to claim the No. 1 seed for the six-race playoffs.
When he defeated Clay Millican in the specialty-race final, Torrence fielded the question of whether Steve Torrence is back. He said, “I haven’t left. I just haven’t done any good.”
The Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty winner in Saturday’s Funny Car class was J.R. Todd, who ran uncontested. Opponent Blake Alexander’s car was leaking some fluid and had to be shut ff at the starting line.
Alexander said he was “a little bummed but no big deal,” and Todd said after exiting his car that he was disappointed he didn’t get to make a race out of it but that he hadn’t earned a trophy of any kind for such a long time that “we’ll take a trophy any way we can get one.”
Todd, driver of the DHL Toyota Supra, is the sixth different winner in eight Funny Car Mission Foods Challenges.
Alexander said he expects his Jim Head Racing crew will have the problem fixed for what he called “the real race.” His opening-round opponent for eliminations Sunday is none other than J.R. Todd.
FINALLY! - J.R. Todd, a two-time NHRA champion, secured his first win in the race-within-race specialty series with an impressive run of 3.977 at 322.81 mph in his DHL Toyota GR Supra. Blake Alexander, his final-round opponent, suffered a mechanical issue at the starting line.
This victory marked Todd’s first win of any kind since the season-opener at Gainesville back in 2021. His breakthrough performance on Saturday followed a series of strong performances during the Western Swing, including a runner-up position in Seattle.
“Any win is a good win,” Todd said. “I feel let the last two slip away from us in Denver and the final round in Seattle. It’s been a while since we’ve won anything, so this is good momentum headed into race day, and hopefully, we can finish it off tomorrow. I feel like we’ve been building momentum since (Norwalk) with our DHL Toyota GR Supra.
“We’ve definitely been knocking on the door of a win. It just goes to show how hard it is to win in Funny Car right now. Just when you think you’ve got it where you need it and it’s going to be your day, somebody like Tim Wilkerson (Seattle winner) jumps up and snatches it from you. So, hopefully, we can ride this wave of momentum into the final again at one of my favorite tracks. It would be really special.”
‘GOD WAS DEFINITELY LOOKING OUT’ – During the final qualifying session, Top Fuel’s Antron Brown miraculously guided his Matco Tools Toyota safely down the right lane and into the turnout area without incident, despite a malfunction with his wing strut early in the run.
He said after exiting the car that the dragster “made a hard move” that “surprised me.” He said he thought he had dropped a cylinder or two before crew chief Brian Corradi told him otherwise.
Brown said, “The cool thing is that the car stayed on the ground. It didn’t get airborne. I should’ve shut it down early – not worth it. I was really blessed and fortunate there. That was a lucky one there. God was definitely looking out,” Brown said.
He said his crew would have everything fixed before he has to face Mike Salinas in the first round of eliminations Sunday.
OILDOWN WOES – Mechanical trouble for one Top Dragster driver Friday night triggered a massive problem for other Lucas Oil Series racers, as well as Top Fuel, Funny Car, and Pro Stock Motorcycle competitors. And the problem carried over through Saturday’s action.
Just after his launch, the Top Dragster driver’s transmission broke and dropped fluid on the track between the Christmas Tree and about 300 feet in the right lane. The Safety Safari tried for more than an hour to fix the racing surface, while the Super Gas and Top Sportsman classes were dismissed for the evening.
The pro categories ran after that, but as John Force Racing crew chief Dave Grubnic declared, “The lanes are so significantly different.” His driver, Brittany Force, and Clay Millican behind her registered particularly remarkable 3.7-second passes in the right lane.
The problem didn’t disappear overnight. Safety Safari workers worked diligently for many hours Saturday to improve conditions, and racing continued. However, the show suffered. In the third overall qualifying session, every single Funny Car and Top Fuel driver who ran in the right lane lost traction. (Only Matt Hagan in Funny Car and Josh Hart and Steve Torrence in Top Fuel – all in the left lane – made passes under full power in the round.)
Privately, some nitro teams applauded the Safety Safari’s efforts, but complained that the proper solution would have been to scrape the track and apply fresh rubber.
Funny Car’s Cruz Pedrego said, “We all were just pushing too hard. The NHRA did a good job of prepping the track. The air’s so good these cars want to go fast, but the track has other ideas.”
INGWERSEN INCHING AWAY FROM UNDERDOG ROLE – Pro Stock Motorcycle racer Marc Ingwersen is an unassuming gentleman. He isn’t full of himself because he owns three Harley-Davidson dealerships or because his crew chief, Jon Miller, has five AHDRA championships to his credit or because he competed Saturday in the All-Star Call-Out bonus race. Actually, he said he hadn’t realized he was a part of it. He thought Jianna Evaristo had qualified ahead of him.
He hasn’t won an event or earned a No. 1 qualifier in 41 appearances. But he’s improving, and with just this race and the U.S. Nationals remaining for the bike class before the Countdown starts, ninth-ranked Ingwersen is poised to grab a second title-eligible playoff spot. Last year he finished eighth in the class, vaulting from a 22nd-place finish the year before.
“We do our own motors. We do everything in-house,” the Upper Sandusky, Ohio, businessman said. “Jon Miller’s my crew chief, and he’s been doing this a long time.”
The budget is tight, and Ingwersen and Miller are frugal.
“We’ve been running with one motor for last year and this year,” Ingwersen said. “We’re working on a second motor, but it’s tough as a one-man team. We just have a hard time R&D-ing these things and testing things. We just don’t have all the equipment that a lot of people do.
“Right now, we’re putting new things in the bike, just trying to get a little bit quicker. We need roughly a tenth more than what we have today. So we just keep chipping away at it,” he said, “and hopefully we can get there soon.”
THE THRILL OF THE CHASE – Rookie Chase Van Sant, of WAR Racing, competed Saturday in his first Pro Stock Motorcycle All-Star Call-Out.
Assessing his pro career, which began just four months and eight races ago, he said, “It’s been mostly good. We’ve struggled with some parts issues. I’ve been happy with how I’ve composed myself on the starting line. In some situations, it’s been kind of a rush to get to the starting line, swapping motors.
“I feel like I’m kind of getting thrown into it. It’s an intimidating class to get into,” he said.
“We need to get some of our parts issues sorted out and get a motor out of a weekend. That’s kind of been our biggest struggle,” Van Sant said, “and work on a tune-up with the same engine throughout a whole weekend, we’ll see some of he results we’ve been aiming for.”
ASHLEY, TOP FUEL RIVAL WANT $30K BONUS -Naturally, Justin Ashley was hoping to be the first to pocket the $30,000 for being the first to clock a 300-mph pass at the eighth-mile mark. But all of his competitors have been, too. Ashley’s primary marketing partner, Phillips Connect, is offering the cash as the crown jewel of its “Phillips Connect 300 at the 1/8” program for any Top Fuel or Funny Car driver to break that speed barrier.
Anticipation of such a barrier-breaking run electrified the Friday-night crowd at Sonoma Raceway, which is known to produce atmospheric conditions favorable for eyebrow-raising performance numbers. Neal Strausbaugh, tuner of Leah Pruett’s Rayce Rudeen Foundation dragster, just whetted everyone’s appetites more when he said he thought Friday could be the day it happens. Teams tried, but no one could accomplish it. So the attention turned Saturday to jockeying for the best starting spots on the ladder for Sunday’s eliminations at this final stop on the Western Swing.
Ashley, winner of four Top Fuel finals in the first seven events and five Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge specialty races, is looking to jump-start the second half of his season with a strong showing here. In the Mission Foods specialty events, Ashley has earned an extra $50,000 and (possibly more valuable) 15 Countdown to the Championship points.
“It’s important to have a good race, because we’re getting closer to the Countdown. We have gone some rounds at Sonoma in the past, and now our goal is to qualify well and put our team in a position to win on race day,” he said.
FORCE LOOKING FOR SONOMA SUCCESS AGAIN – John Force knows time is running short if he’s going to extend to 35 the number of seasons in which he has won at least one event. But as former Funny Car rival Jack Beckman once said, “Don’t keep giving John Force chances to win. He always finds a way to win.”
Force will have another Sunday in his PEAK Chevy Camaro SS tomorrow. And it’ll be a chance to add to his Sonoma Raceway success. He has won here more than anyone else in any pro category, with victories 1990-91, 1992, 1994, 2000, 2002, 2007, and 2016. On six other occasions, he has been the Funny Car class runner-up. He reached the finals seven years in a row from 1990-1996.
This year, Force said, “We’re doing good. We have some work to do, but we’ve had some good runs. Just need to get it together on race day. Another Bruton Smith track. They’ve done some work on the facility, maintaining it, keeping it beautiful. I love racing here. I guess, who doesn’t? I’ve done well in the past so hopefully that’s a sign for this weekend. Looking for a win for all our sponsors.”
Force has qualified No. 1 here eight times (1993-96, 2002-04, 2011) and whenever he’s done so, he never has failed to reach the semifinals. He won from the top spot in 1994 and 2002. He was runner-up to Bob Tasca III.
SPEEDWAY CHILDREN’S CHARITIES RICHER – The 15th annual Eric Medlen Nitro Night auction raised $60,000 Thursday, bringing its total contributions to Speedway Children’s Charities to $400,000.
Maynard Ashley Racing principal Dustin Davis, along with Phillips Connect and the Maynard Ashley Racing marketing group, spearheaded the casual barbecue dinner and party that came after the traditional afternoon karting contest at Sonoma Raceway. Austin Prock, thanks to his pre-drag-racing career experience, dominated the race.
But his fellow Top Fuel racer Justin Ashley called the day “special” and said he was happy his associates “were instrumental in reviving this event last year and it has really taken off again. I didn’t have the privilege of knowing Eric Medlen, but the impact he made on the lives of so many within the NHRA community has been invaluable. I am grateful for the opportunity to join others as we celebrate his life.”
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK - SONOMA ‘FAVORITE SON’ HIGHT EYES FIFTH SONOMA TROPHY, TOPEKA IS TOAST AS TOUR HEADS TO KANSAS CITY, BIKE CLASS GEARS UP FOR CALL-OUT, SALINAS’ DRAG-RACING CAREER BEGINS ON DARE FROM DAUGHTER
THE FAVORITE SON - When Robert Hight started coming to this race that today is called the Denso NHRA Sonoma Nationals at this Sonoma Raceway venue that originally was called Sears Point Raceway, he was 19 years old and engaged in a bit of a battle of wills with his folks. They wanted him to pursue a career in business rather than messing around with these fast, loud race cars.
Hight, who’ll turn 54 years old on Aug. 20, has proven that he not only could do both but also could excel at both. He’s the President of John Force Racing, the sport’s largest nitro-class team with four entrants and the most successful among active teams with 288 victories and 22 championships.
But 35 years ago, when he first took in all the sensory-overload moments of elite drag racing at this racetrack closest to his hometown of Alturas, Calif., Hight might have dreamed he would earn three series titles and 63 races that would cement his impact on the industry. But his immediate goal was to join one of these nomadic race teams as a mechanic and experience these thrills from the inside out.
He might never have imagined he would win this hometown race in three of his most recent visits here (in 2018-19, and 2021) and before that in 2008 – or that he would be quickest in qualifying in 2006, 2017, 2019 and 2022. Could he have entertained the notion that he would set the track and national speed record at 339.87 mph, the fastest pass in the 70-year history of NHRA drag racing? He did, running that 339.87-mph speed at a track-record elapsed time of July 28, 2017 – exactly seven to the years to the day that this 35th edition of this race kicked off with two Friday-night qualifying sessions.
Hight has attended all 34 races at Sonoma, as a spectator, crew member, or driver.
“I’m excited to be back in northern California,” he said. “This is my home track. I grew up coming here. I’ve never missed this national event.”
This year, Hight has won out West (in March at Phoenix) and on the East Coast (in April at Charlotte). He has won in traditional two-wide format and in four-wide. He has won 63 times, which puts him third on the class’ all-time victory list after only boss John Force (155) and Ron Capps (73), sixth among active drivers, and 10th among all drivers in NHRA history. Already he has stretched to 18 the number of years in which he has won at least one race and qualified No. 1 at least once.
But Hight has hit a bit of a dry spell since April 30, although since then he has qualified first with low elapsed time and top speed of the meet in May at Joliet, Ill., and led the field and set low E.T. in June at Bristol, Tenn. Despite lasting on race day past the quarterfinals just once (semifinals at Bristol), the Cornwell Tools Chevy Camaro driver is fourth in the standings with just three events after this one before the Countdown begins.
“I think this Cornwell Tools team is due for a win. We’ve struggled a bit, and had some bad luck, but I know this team. We know how to win,” he said. “We keep putting in the work, and it will pay off. Hopefully, it’s this weekend and we can break back into the top three in points. The Countdown is coming, and we want to be in a strong position to start the battle for another championship.”
He’s trying to become just the fourth Funny Car driver -- after Force, Kenny Bernstein and Don Prudhomme -- to earn four series championships.
RUMOR ALERT – NHRA executives hosted their annual sponsor meeting Thursday. According to one attendee, the talk is that with a couple of possible gaps in the 2024 schedule, the tour might return to a couple of tracks where it has raced in the past. Could that include Virginia Motorsports Park? Might the Arizona Nationals return at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, even though the conventional wisdom said this March’s race was the final one there?
NO RUMOR – THIS IS OFFICIAL – Heartland Park Topeka is on its way out, but Kansas City’s Flying H Dragstrip will replace it on next season’s schedule, the NHRA announced Friday.
After 34 years and almost as many of exhaustive tax and property disputes with Kansas’ Shawnee County, the historic Topeka dragstrip will host its final NHRA national event – the Menards NHRA Nationals presented by PetArmor – on Aug. 11-13. While the facility in the Kansas capital will become the sixth major racetrack to drop from the scene since 2018, it already has a replacement nearby.
Located at Odessa, Mo., at I-70 Motorsports Park, the quarter-mile Flying H Dragstrip already is under construction and is expected to open later this year and host a Camping World Drag Racing Series event next year. Scott Higgs purchased the property this March, registered his racetrack as an NHRA member track right away, and plans to have a venue with top-tier amenities.
Track Vice-President Blake Housley joined Higgs in saying, “We are truly excited to bring NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series action to our track in 2024. Everyone at Flying H Dragstrip was thrilled to join the NHRA member track network earlier this year, and to have a national event during our first full year of operation is going to be incredible. We’ve been dedicated to building a great facility with great people and a strong family environment. It’s been a lot of work, but our team is committed to building a top-notch facility at Flying H Dragstrip and making it a memorable weekend for the race teams, fans and partners.”
NHRA President Glen Cromwell said, “We have a rich history at Heartland Motorsports Park, and we want to thank [owner] Chris Payne and his team for many years supporting NHRA drag racing. But as one door closes, another opens. And we are looking forward to the great opportunity of racing in the Kansas City area at a brand-new facility. Scott Higgs and his team are building a fantastic new track at Flying H Dragstrip. We are excited to have our first event there in 2024 and create a wealth of new memories in the area. There have been many great moments at Topeka over the years, and we know this upcoming final race weekend will be one fans won’t want to miss.”
Payne’s reaction to the news was one of gratitude: “We are extremely thankful for our longtime partnership with the NHRA and its racers, as well as all the fans who have visited Heartland Motorsports Park over the years. Because of the actions by Shawnee County, unfortunately, this will be the last national event at Heartland Motorsports Park. We look forward to completing the 2023 season, as well.”
Virginia Motorsports Park voluntarily dropped from the schedule. But gone are dragstrips at Englishtown, N.J. (Philadelphia/New York); Commerce, Ga. (Atlanta); Baytown, Texas (Houston); Chandler, Ariz. (Phoenix); and Bandimere Speedway (Denver).
TRICKY TRACK, NO PROBLEM - On a tricky track Friday night in Q2 at the at the Denso NHRA Sonoma (Calif.) Nationals, Top Fuel driver Austin Prock shined.
Prock, piloting his John Force Racing dragster, clocked a 3.704-second time at 331.36 mph to grab the provisional No. 1 spot.
If Prock holds his position after Saturday's two rounds of action, it would be his first No. 1 qualifier of the season in his Montana Brand/Rocky Mountain Twist Top Fuel dragster and the second of his career. He captured the lone No. 1 spot of his career last year in Dallas.
“We just overcame the conditions,” Prock said. “We struggled the first one. We've really been struggling trying to keep this thing on eight cylinders and we did that tonight. It put up a great number. That feels really promising. I'm really happy to work with this team. (Crew chiefs) Chris (Cunningham) and Joe (Barlam) do a great job, and I love working with my Montana brand boys. There were a lot of high fives going on in the pits when we heard that last pair go down and we stayed No. 1.”
Prock just edged out Steve Torrence, the winner in Seattle last weekend, for the top honors as Torrence came in at 3.706 seconds.
“With this 13-car ladder, it would've been almost nice to qualify second and we just missed it by two thousandths (of a second). Before we got here, I was joking with Cunningham and saying if we make a nice run Q1, I'm going to roll it in a hun[dredth] Q2 just to try and ensure we get that P2 position. I'm really happy to have No. 1. If this holds up, it'll be my second career, and that'd be really special to do it here.” - Tracy Renck
NEEDED: A WIN - Alexis DeJoria rolled off the trailer in Sonoma, Calif., Friday and was ready to go.
DeJoria clocked a 3.942-second time at 326.56 mph IN Q1 to grab the provisional No. 1 qualifying spot at the Denso NHRA Sonoma (Calif.) Nationals.
Reigning back-to-back NHRA nitro Funny Car world champion Ron Capps had the exact same elapsed time as DeJoria in Q1, but didn’t record a mph, so he was bumped to the No. 2 spot on the ladder.
If DeJoria keeps the No. 1 spot through Saturday’s final two qualifying sessions, it would be her first of the season and the seventh of her nitro Funny Car driving career. Her last No. 1 qualifier came in the Las Vegas fall race in 2021.
DeJoria, who drives the Bandero Premium Tequila Toyota GR Supra Funny Car, has had plenty of success in Sonoma. In eight appearances at the Sonoma national event, including in 2021-22, DeJoria has advanced to the semifinals four times in eight Sonoma Raceway starts.
“Consistent runs are always good,” said DeJoria, who clocked a 3.966- second time in Q2, which was the quickest of that session as well. “We were hoping to run a bit faster (Friday night), but it just ate up the clutch. We were going to run something like an 84 or 83. We're trying to, but we still made it down the track. That's progress and I'm happy about that as well.
And we got those six bonus points, so that's always nice. Our team's just excellent. I mean, (crew chiefs) Del (Worsham) and Nicky (Boninfante) have given me such a great car this season. We've had our best start to the season yet. Third in points, just keep racking them up. Just missing that win.”
PAIRINGS SET FOR NHRA ALL-STAR CALL-OUT FOR BIKES - Like he has been during every dominating performance this season, Gaige Herrera was cool and collected as he kept his secret all week.
Everyone wondered who the Vance & Hines Mission Suzuki racer would choose for his first-round opponent in Saturday’s NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle All-Star Call-Out.
They found out Friday night. Top-seeded Herrera, goaded by Matt Smith to choose him and joining playful Eddie Krawiec in making fans think he’ll pick his teammate in what would be an unusual strategy twist, selected “my buddy” Chase Van Sant.
He said, “I think the two young guys should go at it first round.”
Van Sant said that the fans might see some upsets, and hinted he could be the one to pull off the biggest of the specialty race aboard the WAR Racing Trick Tools Suzuki. He said he and Herrera have had some tight races – and he said to expect some games on the starting line.
Second-seeded Hector Arana Jr., who confessed that he didn’t know until the last minute that he even had qualified for the Call-Out, took Button Trucking Suzuki racer Steve Johnson as his Round 1 foe.
Arana Jr. said he hadn’t decided to choose Johnson until the second qualifying session of the day, minutes before, “right when I was in the lights and there was oil all in front of me. He says he doesn’t do it, but he was the one who went in front of me. And s—t’s sprayed everywhere. I let the clutch go. I’m all over the place. You know, I got my win [at Norwalk] against him. Steve Johnson. Let’s race, buddy.”
Johnson mockingly said, “I’m going home and crying” because the GETTRX Buell rider called him out.
Krawiec, the No. 3 seed, made a devilishly delicious choice when it was his turn. He chose Marc Ingwersen – not because Ingwersen was the weakest of the three left, but because that would force the husband-wife team of Matt And Angie Smith to face each other in the opening round Saturday.
Matt Smith said, “I was hoping Gaige would call me out” after Herrera moments before had knocked Smith out of the day’s No. 1 qualifying berth by a mere one-thousandth of a second.
“I don’t like beating my wife. I could go to jail for that,” Smith said, assuming he will win that match-up. Mrs. Smith might have other ideas. Considering he’s the one who tunes her bike, he has more pressure on him than she has on her. And she reinforced that, warning that if something bad happens to her bike mechanically, he’ll be to blame. They kissed on the podium.
So with kissing, fake weeping, oildown accusations, manipulative strategy, and (seemingly) just a couple of nice young kids plotting against each other, and talk of “wife beating” of sorts, the call-out procedure was like bystander Steve Torrence, the Top Fuel driver, characterized it: “It got pretty juicy.”
BIKE CLASS GETS MOUTHY BEFORE CALL-OUT – Racers who qualified for the Pro Stock Motorcycle class’ first All-Star Call-Out bonus race didn’t wait for the actual call-out exercise Friday night to start poking fun and throwing shade at one another. They did so earlier in the week as they convened online for a video conference call. Marc Ingwersen didn’t trash-talk anybody, and neither did Chase Van Sant, although the latter did say he rather enjoyed the rivalries and sniping.
“Some more of that goes on behind the scenes than people realize,” Van Sant, of White Alligator Racing, said, anticipating some excitement when fans got to see that on the stage Friday night at the pairing ceremony. “I’m excited to get into it more. I don’t really have a rivalry, per se, but if one kind of develops, I’m all for it. I think it’s great for the sport.”
Five-time and reigning champion Matt Smith agreed that the drama drives interest in the sport and brought up his ongoing squabble with fellow racer Steve Johnson.
“I think it brings out a lot in our sport. I know that two or three years ago, I mentioned about hobby racers, I didn’t throw it down as an insult to anybody. Some people have normal jobs and they come out and do the racing as part-time. And that’s the ones I call hobby racers,” Smith said. “There’s other people that do this for a living, like I do, and this is how I make a living. So I don’t have a job to fall back on. If I fail at this, then I have to go get a normal job – and then I become a hobby racer. Right now, I’m to the point I have a good career going in my life. It was no slap to anybody out there that has a normal job and races part-time.
“But,” Smith said of the occasional flare-ups, “it brings a lot to our sport.” As for the Seattle war of words between Funny Car drivers J.R. Todd and Alex Laughlin, Smith said, “I don’t know the whole source of it, but I think some of it’s pretty funny.”
Johnson responded to Smith by saying, “I think the rivalries are essential, especially when they’re authentic. In all fairness to Matt, he’s just out of perspective. It doesn’t matter whether he was right or wrong – people are going to do whatever they do ... today’s society, right? My opinion doesn’t matter, but it’s my opinion. I want people to understand that I respect and enjoy everybody out there, because it’s essential for the sanction body, for our class, that we have what we all believe is the most exciting class in the National Hot Rod Association.
“It’s the hardest to navigate our vehicle down the dragstrip perfectly in comparison to an automobile. We’re the only ones who aren’t strapped into our vehicles. We’re out there in the open. We use our body as part of the momentum,” Johnson said. “So all of these things that are details create an opinion. Whether we’re talking about the opinion of the riders or their personalities or their abilities on the racetrack, it just opens it up. When the media allow us to share some of that, when I get ticked off at something that Matt did and I’m allowed to share it and not get beat up by my sponsor, it’s really cool. I think he’s not scared to tell everybody what he thinks of me, too.
“We all want to have the coolest class. Sometimes the rivalries are not only important – they’re essential. The fans want to know what our passion is. And online, Matt has his fans, and they hate my guts, All six of my fans I got hold of last week, and they don’t like him. So it’s all good,” Johnson said.
Smith conducted his interview swaddled in a spa bathrobe and explained that “Denso has put Angie (wife Angie Smith, also a participant in the All-Start Call-Out) and me in a spa to relax, to get ready for this Call-Out.
Johnson, with mock jealousy, wanted a robe, too.
Krawiec sneaked in a jab: “All I’m going to say is hopefully the spa doesn’t offer a waxing, because it’s going to happen out here on Saturday.”
Smith shot back, “He’s just lucky my cam sensor broke in the semifinals" last week at Seattle.
Krawiec said, “I might be lucky, but it happened.”
Johnson broke in and declared, “We’re going to do pedicures!” as he flashed his bare toes for the camera. Then he said to Smith, “The sensor didn’t fail. It got clipped.”
Arana said, “I thought I saw Eddie snooping around your pit before the semifinals.”
“Probably,” interjected Angie Smith.
Then Smith said Friday’s Call-Out was a “great opportunity for [top-seeded] Gaige [Herrera] or Hector [No. 2-ranked Arana Jr.] or Eddie [No.3 Krawiec] to call out somebody they don’t like. This’ll be fun.”
And, without sharing why he was so sure, Smith told Krawiec, “I can guarantee you Gaige will not call you out [as Krawiec had predicted as a possibility and even said he’d like to have the chance to call out his Vance & Hines teammate Herrera]. I will bet anything on it that I have that he will not call you out first round.”
Arana jumped in and said, “What do you want from Matt, Eddie?”
Krawiec said with a sly smile, “It’ll be fun. That’s all I’m going to say.”
Smith said, “It doesn’t matter to me. I don’t care who calls who out. We all got to run whoever’s the best bike. Hopefully the best bike will win, that there’s no mistakes or some parts failure. We had a parts failure last race with a cam sensor.”
When the camera cut to Johnson, he had stuffed tissues or paper towels into his shirt collar, and, primping and dabbing at his cheeks, Johnson quipped that his sponsor was treating him to a facial. “Then I’ve got to clean the toilet – it’s part of my package.
“We all know everybody thinks we’re the loose cannon, we suck, and we’re going to be the first one picked. We all know that,” Johnson said, “because at any moment I can run a [terrible] 9.64 [-second elapsed time] at 104 mph. I hate that I can do that, but it’s just the reality of my program – at this present time.”
After just about every Call-Out racer got in on the verbal mayhem, Angie Smith predicted that Saturday’s Call-Out ultimately “is going to be the Vance & Hines team against MSR [Matt Smith Racing].” And they all predicted that the whole experience is going to be fun.
THEY'RE BOO-ING AND THEY AIN'T GHOSTS - Steve Torrence has won four NHRA Top Fuel championships facing the best of the best in Top Fuel. However, there was one team he wanted to avoid dealing with either in qualifying or eliminations last weekend in Seattle.
The BooCrew wanted a piece of the 'ol champion at the NHRA Northwest Nationals..
Last season, they started to give the Kilgore, Texas-based Torrence the business. Well, actually, according to Torrence, it's been a few years running. And this year, they were amped up to give more of the same trash-talking.
"Every round, it was more and more antagonizing," Torrence admitted, trying not to crack a smile during his interview on the CompetitionPlus Power Hour podcast. "And I finally was like, 'You know what? I've been mad about it and kind of waving at them and laughing and just antagonizing him as much as I could."
Torrence said the love/hate relationship, meaning they loved to hate one another, went back a couple of years. The razzing actually started on Friday when Torrence and his team visited the scales, a customary procedure before qualifying.
"They started booing, and I was already looking for them," Torrence said. "I was scoping them out."
Torrence decided after his final round he'd had enough of the BooCrew and their shenanigans, so he lit out for the grandstands... but not in anger. He figured by winning the event after such a dry spell; he might have earned a mulligan with his antagonists.
Nothing settles an argument better than a cold beer, or at least that's how Torrence saw it.
"After the final round, I told them, 'Come and have a beer with us in the winner circle," Torrence said, and then he walked away, not expecting anything to transpire.
Then he turned around, and there they were. Torrence and the proclaimed BooCrew were in the winner's circle having an adult beverage.
"Those suckers showed up," Torrence said. "And man, ended up three of the coolest guys I've met, hung out, BS'ed with them a little bit, had them in the winner circle picture with us, gave them a couple of winner circle hats."
And for at least an hour, all was right in the world, at least Steve Torrence's world.
"They'll still boo me next year, maybe, but if not, [I'm sure] they're going to pick on somebody else," Torrence said. "I had a good time with them. So it was pretty cool."
Those who know Torrence believe he's probably one of the most misunderstood racers in the Camping World Drag Racing Series pits. Over the years, he's tried to win over the enemies he's never met, one introduction at a time.
"That's the cool thing about our sport," Torrence said. "You can have some guys and gals that love you, you got to have some guys and gals that hate you, but at least they're rooting for somebody. That's what I told them. I said, 'Hey, I don't care if you like me or not. I would prefer you like me and not boo me. But it was pretty cool, and it makes a dang good story now that you're in the winner circle picture with us."
And Torrence understands why they would want to boo him based on the data they are presented.
"A lot of those cats that you hear all the trash talk and stuff, they don't know Steve Torrence," he admitted. "They see 15 seconds of wound-up, adrenaline-pumping Steve Torrance hopping off at the mouth down there at the end of a run. They don't know me.
"So if we sit down like we are right now, have a beer, have a glass of whiskey, hang out, talk and cut up and shoot the bull, I'm a lot different guy than I am when I get out of that race car. I'm trying to cut the guy's head off or the girl's head off or try to win. Competition brings out a different person."- Bobby Bennett
SALINAS TOOK A DARE – Mike Salinas always was attracted to motorsports. He competed in the Nostalgia Eliminator, a 7.0 class, before earning his Top Fuel license in 2009. But the Bay Area business mogul said he actually started Scrappers Racing on a dare from his daughter Janae.
“I saw somebody else doing it, and Janae told me at nine years old, ‘I don’t think you can do it.’ So, I said, ‘Let’s go see. I can do it.’ That’s actually how we got here,” he said.
“We were watching it on TV, and J.R. Todd was driving way back when. And Janae and I saw him qualify No. 1 at Sonoma. And we were watching the drag races, and she says, ‘How come you don’t go do that?’ And I said, ‘We can,’” Salinas said. “And she said, ‘I don’t think you can.’ That’s how it started.”
Today, in 111 Top Fuel starts, Salinas has eight victories in 16 final rounds (including the season-opening Gatornationals this year) and 13 No. 1 qualifiers (two this season). He finished last season with a career-best third-place finish in the final standings. Right now, he’s in eighth place, gunning for his fifth Countdown to the Championship berth.
He said the best advice he could give anyone – and it sounds like a fortune-cookie prediction but one gleaned from experience through his adversity-to-assets journey – “Integrity, happiness and harmony in life will allow you to see the positive side of things and allow you to do good in your life.”
As for being challenged by his daughter, that’s nothing new for him. He’s way outnumbered in houseful of women – wife Monica and four daughters, including drag racers Jasmine Salinas, who’s preparing to graduate from an A/Fuel dragster to a Top Fuel car, and Jianna Evaristo, a contender in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class. Daughter Jacquelin helps juggle the business interests at Scrappers, Valley Services, and the other family ventures.
Mike Salinas said being surrounded by women “is awesome, actually. It’s like being in high school and harassing our friends and of course getting harassed back. It’s great.”
And now he doesn’t have to prove anything to anybody.
LEE BRINGS FRESH ASSOCIATES TO SPORT – Paul Lee is more than just a longtime Funny Car racer. He’s owner of McLeod Racing and has grown that business asset into the larger Wharton Automotive Group with the acquisition of FTI Performance and Silver Sport Transmissions (SST). And for only the seventh time this year and first time in three events (since the Norwalk, Ohio, race), Lee is returning – with a new-to-drag-racing associate, Zurn Elkay Water Solutions. Event title sponsor Denso also is helping Lee’s efforts to host a full hospitality experience with his partners Mainline Sales and Breen Design Group for the entire weekend.
Zurn Elkay is a water business that includes professional-grade water control and safety, water distribution, and drainage, as well as drinking water, finish plumbing, hygienic, environmental and site-works products for public and private spaces.
“For years, Mainline Sales has always been a great partner with our race team, and having one of their key partners in Zurn Elkay join us for the Sonoma Nationals makes this event even more special,” Lee said. “Zurn Elkay offers water solutions for schools that give kids everywhere the chance to have cleaner and fresher water, which is amazing."
On the racetrack, he and crew chief Jason Bunker have a special consultant in John Medlen. The legendary tuner with extensive experience at John Force Racing and Don Schumacher Racing came back to his home area for this race and the remembrances of his late son Eric, who would have turned 50 years old Aug. 13. The Medlens are from Oakdale. And John Medlen, who retired from a fulltime schedule after last season, and wife Martha, live in northern Georgia in the Blue Ridge Mountains. But he’s back, helping Lee.
John Medlen actually has been working with Lee during the past few races, collaborating with Bunker to find that sweet spot for Lee’s car.
“With valuable input from John Medlen, our Jason Bunker-led team shows clear signs of improvement,” Lee said. “We just need more runs and this weekend. We hope to start shining. I’m excited to get back to the racetrack at Sonoma, one of my favorite races of the year. Plus, we represent great partners like DENSO, Zurn Elkay, Mainline Sales, and Breen Design Group.” His team also welcomes back IGTG IT Consulting.
‘READY TO KICK SOME BUTT’ – Tony Schumacher said Sonoma Raceway – where he has won twice (2007-08), been runner-up five times (1999, 2006, 2010-11, 2018), and qualified No. 1 twice (2006, 2011) - is one of his favorites. And he is serving notice that he and his SCAG Power Equipment dragster team “are going to take everything that we learned in Seattle and come right off the trailer ready to kick some butt.”
He said at Seattle that he “had a tough match in Seattle, might have beat some of the other cars.”
He’s right. Although his 3.785-second elapsed time wouldn’t have beaten any winner in the first round, it was better than the E.T. of three of four second-round winners, both semifinal victors, and Steve Torrence’s in the final round. That’s just drag racing, and he knows that.
He was runner-up to Justin Ashley at Epping, and he continued to assert that this newly assembled/reassembled team will start shining.
His fortunes, through eight championships and 86 victories and 545 races, he said, making a wave motion with his hand, are “undulating. I've had years where we're magical at the beginning, magical at the end, magical throughout the whole year and terrible all year long.”
Schumacher said, “This one has a light at the end of the tunnel with the parts are right. The crew is more than right. They don't go from winning a bunch of stuff last year, even though it's a funny car, they switch over and the car's longer and it flexes and it moves and there's some different stuff. They'll figure that part out.”
He said, too, that since he was dominating the Top Fuel class, it has developed “a lot of good drivers. I mean, there's a handful of them - a handful. There's a lot of good Top Fuel drivers right now. It’s a great era to be in it.” He contrasted that to the Funny Car class: “There's maybe five or six good Funny Car drivers, maybe eight. If you were to say, ‘We need to pick a Funny Car driver to go over and be the USA representative in the Olympics, there’s a couple you can choose from. Top Fuel, you got a handful. It's just different.”
MRS. SMITH DISSES MR. SMITH? - Angie Smith remarked what she thought of her husband’s choice of motorcycles.
“He should be on a V-Twin. He shouldn’t be on a Suzuki,” she said. “I like my Denso V-Twin stuff.”
“You go, hirl,” Steve Johnson exclaimed. “Talk about inner-team rivalries!”
Angie Smith said, “He does tune my bike, so I have to be somewhat nice.”
Johnson said, “We all saw Matt sleeping outside the motorhome that night after he beat you in the second round" at Seattle.
Angie Smith was the leader after the first qualifying session, with a 6.818-second, 199.64-mph – nine-hundredths of a second quicker than her No. 6 husband. But in the Friday evening session, Matt Smith aced out his wife with a 6.729-second pass at 200.23 mph.
Then Gaige Herrera topped them both with a 6.728, 199.94 to take the provisional No. 1 position by a mere one-thousandth of a second.
STILL SEEKING A WALLY – Brittany Force remembers it well. It was just a year ago, but how could she forget even if it were 10 years ago? She drove her Flav-R-Pac/Monster Energy dragster to victory, setting both ends of the track performance records and rewriting the speed record in consecutive runs in a performance that led to her second Top Fuel championship.
That, Force said before the event opened Friday with two qualifying sessions, is why “we’re looking forward to getting the weekend started ... just because of how we dominated on Sunday last season. We set records and had four solid runs running in the 3.60s, which was just unbelievable. We got to bring home a win and the specialty wine goblet. It was probably one of our best wins of the season last year.”
She recorded five victories in 2022 but has yet to score one this season, despite running top speed of the meet at 10 of the previous 11 races, setting low elapsed time at four races, and leading the qualifying order four times. What she really would like to exit here with is the 17th trophy of her career.
“Our game plan going into Sonoma Raceway this season is we want to repeat. We want to do that again. We want back-to-back Sonoma Nationals victories,” Force said.
The Southern California native last year improved her numbers on each pass. She carved out the track E.T. record at 3.662 seconds against teammate Austin Prock in the first round. For three consecutive runs, she improved the Sonoma Raceway speed record from 336.07 mph in the first round to 336.49 in the second round, and finally the standing track record 337.75 in the semifinals.
Force also qualified first in 2014 and 2021.