2023 NHRA SUMMIT RACING EQUIPMENT NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
THE TEN: SUMMIT RACING EQUIPMENT NATIONALS EDITION - Competition Plus’ Water-Cooler Topics From The Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals...
1. Top Fuel winner Pruett gets her licks in - Leah Pruett said her favorite ice cream flavor is “anything but vanilla.” So what? Here’s what: She said she never before had partaken of the trademark ice-cream smorgasbord the Bader Family has offered at Summit Racing Equipment Motorsports Park. This time she did, Saturday after qualifying first in the Top Fuel field. And now she has her own specially designed ice-cream scoop that goes exclusively to the winners of this event.
In earning her scoop, her trophy, the points, and the cash, Pruett cooled down red-hot class powerhouse Justin Ashley. It was the Dodge Direct Connection Dragster driver’s first victory of the season, 11th overall in Top Fuel, and Tony Stewart Racing’s first victory in Top Fuel this year and second altogether.
It also was Pruett’s first trip to the winners circle since last July’s Denver race – the Dodge-sponsored Mile-High Nationals, which happens to be next on the Camping World Drag Racing Series schedule.
She said she and her Neal Strausbaugh/Mike Domagala-led team kept telling each other that a victory was near: “It’ll come. It’ll come.” But she said that was starting to get old. So now the message, she said, is “We’re not going to let up.”
Pruett thanked her husband, Stewart, for providing the team that’s in its second year of competition.
“This is a built, not bought, team,” she declared.
2. Alexander emotional after joining elite nitro winners club - Never mind that it was Blake Alexander’s first victory since the 2018 Sonoma event, when he won in a Top Fuel dragster. Never mind that in the Funny Car final round Sunday he, as a representative of a single-car team, defeated three-time series champion and three-time 2023 winner Matt Hagan. Never mind that he became just the 18th driver in NHRA’s 65-plus-year history to win in both nitro classes – just like team owner Jim Head did in 1996 at Topeka.
“We wanted it,” Alexander said. “We felt like more of a professional race team as the day went on.” What helped was the fact he was able to do some testing at Indianapolis Raceway Park this past Tuesday.
Alexander, who had described his Sonoma victory five years ago as “peaceful,” was anything but placid at the top end of the track immediately after exiting his Ford Mustang.
“This is hard! This is hard!” he said, pointing to his car and referring to the intensity of competition in the Camping World Drag Racing Series. He said being strong repetitively is difficult and praised Hagan for doing so. “He motivated me,” Alexander said of his final-round opponent.
And he said, “Thanks to all the people who put up with my s---.” Holding the Wally trophy and his own ice-cream scoop that Norwalk winners traditionally receive, an emotional Alexander said the victory is for “waking up at four o’clock in the morning” and tackling the task of finding funding for the chance to race, something for which he said he lives and breathes. And it’s for the sometimes-heartbreaking journey, including the highway fatality involving beloved crew member Dylan Cromwell in October 2021.
Alexander recorded his career-first victory at Norwalk, which happens to be in Head’s home state of Ohio. “We’re comfy out here,” he said after winning his semifinal match-up against top qualifier Bob Tasca III.
So a lot of emotions and memories played into Alexander’s victory celebration. Head, meanwhile, quipped, “Finally – I get to retire now.” But he immediately said he was kidding, although he did say he finally let his race car prove itself.
3. Pro Stock winner Hartford ready to win some more - Like Top Fuel’s Leah Pruett, Pro Stock owner-driver Matt Hartford will be a winner as he returns in three weeks to Bandimere Speedway, site of his previous victory. Hartford took his Total Seal/Rottler Chevy Camaro from the No. 1 starting spot to the winners circle Sunday and at least partially fulfilled a wish he expressed Saturday evening.
“We need to go in [the Countdown] with as many points as we can. We want to get some more semifinal and final rounds and get into the [Challenge] again, because there’s points there,” Hartford said, convinced that “right now, we have a chance to win the championship. It’s our best chance we’ve ever had.”
Hartford easily defeated Dallas Glenn, who had advanced to his fifth final round in the past six races. With that, he claimed his sixth overall victory and first of the year in his second final-round appearance.
In the rematch of the Pomona Pro Stock final, Hartford atoned for four losses to Glenn earlier this season.
“People asked if we could win again,” Hartford said. “Guess what? We can.”
4. Arana Jr. repeats family feat at Norwalk as Pro Stock Bike winner - It wasn’t the site of his first victory like it was his father’s. But Hector Arana Jr. defeated Steve Johnson in the Pro Stock Motorcycle final to etch his own name in the Summit Racing Equipment Motorsports Park record book.
For the second-generation racer, the victory was the 18th of his career. And Dad said, “How sweet it is!”
Arana Jr. defeated Wesley Wells and the husband-wife team of Matt and Angie Smith. Matt Smith is the five-time and reigning bike-class champion, and Angie Smith just the day before had beaten Arana Jr. in the bonus specialty race during qualifying.
“We had an awesome bike,” he said, acknowledging that he had learned from and made up for a mistake he had made in the Saturday race-within-a-race when he faced Angie Smith in that final round.
Arana, who returned to the class last October and immediately delivered victories at Dallas and Las Vegas for sponsor GETTRX, won for the first time since then.
5. Cathi Maynard passes away - Cathi Maynard, one of NHRA’s biggest fans and supporters, passed away Thursday after a courageous 35-year battle with multiple sclerosis.
As a team tribute to her said, “It was no secret that she loved fast cars and high horsepower, and as an Army veteran, Maynard quickly adopted Tony Schumacher as her favorite race-car driver. She was the driving force behind the Maynard family becoming involved in drag racing, first as sponsors in 2021 before forming JCM Racing during the 2022 season, and fans of ‘The Sarge’ can credit Maynard for his return to full-time competition after a multi-year hiatus from the sport.”
Schumacher said, “She was such a fighter, such an amazing person, and she’s in a better place. It’s a privilege to have known her, and I would say, by far, I’m a better man for knowing her. She was so kind and so good to people. No one that met her left a lesser person.”
She was the inspiration for her family’s latest Camping World Drag Racing Series property: Maynard Ashley Racing.
After claiming his fourth Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge victory, Top Fuel racer Justin Ashley said, “We have been fortunate to win several races, and this year, several Mission Food Challenges, but this one stands out. Believe it or not, this win is more significant than any of the others we’ve had this year” because the news of Cathi Maynard’s passing still was fresh in everyone’s mind.
He said Saturday, “We all got together this morning, and RFC [Racers for Christ] did a great job of saying a team prayer, and a bunch of teams were involved with it. It was an emotional day. We know we have an angel with us, Cathi. Joe (Maynard) Joe (Maynard) Sr. – we are all thinking about them. It’s an emotional day – a tough day, but to be able to turn on another win light for Cathi, all that she’s done for so many of us out here, really is tremendously, tremendously meaningful.”
6. Tasca delivers news that Funny Car fans shouldn’t focus just on Capps, Hagan, Hight - After Bob Tasca III earned his third No. 1 qualifier in nine races, reassuring him that his Funny Car program is headed in the right direction, he at once showed his vulnerability and his control in a candid conversation about his journey of the past seven months.
“There weren’t many who would put $5 on me after my previous crew chiefs pretty much fired me, right? So I got fired by everyone but two people. I hired all the people that they fired to get my team. And at the end of the day, what sweet serendipity it was, right?” he said.
“It just goes to show you, uou can have a lot of talent, but hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard,” Tasca said. “That’s the harsh reality of it.
“These guys, maybe on paper, aren’t as talented as the team I had last year. But they’re the hardest-working group of people I’ve ever been around, ever – [with] attention to detail like I’ve never seen in my racing career,” he said.
The magic that money often can’t buy and that even genius can’t guarantee comes from chemistry.
“I’ve given them all the parts and pieces that they’ve needed,” Tasca said of his current team that’s pointing him in the right direction, probably to the surprise of people who thought the Funny Car crown would be a tug-o-war among Ron Capps, Matt Hagan, and Robert Hight. “The one piece that you never know when you go in – and I started with zero going into this season – is chemistry. Will the chemistry work between the crew chiefs and the team? And do you have two crew chiefs or one?
“I thought I had an incredible combination with Todd [Okuhara] and Aaron [Brooks]. And now I know I have an incredible combination,” he said. “When you get the chemistry – like catching lightning in a bottle – you want to keep it in that bottle.
“I’m just fortunate to have had the opportunity to pull together the guys that are on this car right now – a little bit out of desperation at the time – with the hopes of doing something special. And man, from the first run at testing at Gainesville till now, they ain’t doubting us anymore, I can tell you that much,” Tasca said.
8. Greg Stanfield shows off Factory X (FX) Chevrolet COPO Camaro - The NHRA declined Saturday to reveal the performance numbers for Greg Stanfield’s inaugural exhibition pass in the freshly minted Chevrolet COPO Camaro at Summit Racing Equipment Motorsports Park – resulting in some rousing boos from the crowd. But insiders suggested that it clocked a six-second run in the 190-mph range in its maiden voyage down the northern Ohio quarter-mile.
This new Factory X presented by Holley class, or “FX,” will feature the COPO Camaro, Dodge Challenger Drag Pak, and Ford Mustang Cobra Jet, and 2019-and-newer manufactured automobiles.
According to NHRA reports, National Tech Director Lonnie Grim said, “Our intention is this will become a heads-up category at select NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series events in 2023 and will continue to be included in Competition Eliminator across all divisions. This class will be one more solid addition to the exciting lineup of very quick NHRA doorslammer classes, and there is incredible potential in this class. The fact that it is manually shifted with strong performance capability will allow fans to enjoy the sounds of 10,000 RPM.”
The FX class will have a minimum weight limit of 2,650 pounds, which is nearly 1,000 pounds lighter than a Factory Stock Showdown car. Every car in the class must have a manual transmission. Each body must be OEM-dimensional as well, so no alterations to the bodies will be allowed. Each car must have a steel roof and quarter-body panels, and the chassis on the cars must meet certain technical specifications. And FX cars must race on tires are 33 inches tall and 10.5 inches wide – wider than those on FSS cars.
Grim said engineers have “brought a lot of new technology into this class, and it will be a 100-percent stock-dimensional car. It’s going to be a really exciting class that embraces technology and affordability and has huge potential from a performance standpoint. It should also be very exciting for the fans, from the standpoint they can be in the stands and said, ‘Hey, I drove one of those to the racetrack today,’ and then watch one of these cars make a great run down the track.”
9. Justin Ashley bags fourth #2Fast2Tasty trophy - After winning the specialty races four times, Ashley said his team is “very impressive” and that “we did a really good job of establishing a foundation. But we feel it’s time to take that next step, and for us, that’s winning a championship.” This achievement, he said, “speaks volumes to the team that we have and to the mindset that we have. It is very easy to win races and then get complacent, but that is not what this group is about. Just each race in its own sphere – we don’t worry about the future, we don’t worry about the past, but taking one round and one race at a time. All of this winning stuff is great, and it’s far from just me. It’s a full team effort. When you surround yourself with so many good people, good things happen. So just leaning on others that have experience is helpful. We are focused on getting better, not worrying about what is going on off the race track, but just focused on what is happening in the driver’s seat. It has resulted in a lot of success.”
Other winners of the specialty race for semifinalists from the previous event were Ron Capps (Funny Car), Deric Kramer (Pro Stock), and Angie Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle).
After defeating fellow finalist Robert Hight to win the bonus race for the second time this season, Capps said, “I’d love to give the trophy to Mr. [Bill] Bader and all these Norwalk fans. These fans are unbelievable. The championships, races – everything – has to go through that car with [crew chief] Jimmy Prock and Robert Hight. I would like to think most of the teams say the same thing about our NAPA [Toyota Supra]. I don’t even know what the money is for winning it, but we get three championship points that go in our bank, and that is huge.” Surely Capps knows by now that it’s $10,000.
Get Biofuel Camaro driver Kramer, who outran Greg Anderson, said, “If you do well in this, you get that confidence, and it keeps building and building. At this point, there’s nothing we can’t do.”
Denso Buell racer Smith said she’s seizing every opportunity she can get because “you don’t know when you’re going to get the next one. Now we have to be on our A game.” And that, she noted, goes for Saturday qualifying, as well as Sunday eliminations.
10. They know how to turn a phrase - Using theme-park jargon, Ron Capps described his rather wild late-Friday-night qualifying run – in which he got close to the wall, lost clear visibility at about the 700-foot mark on the 1,000-foot course, and said clutch dust was flying around – as “an E Ticket ride.” That describes a theme park attraction that’s the most thrilling, danger-tinged, or popular ride.
And Doug Foley dubbed this event ”Indy 1” because of the high number of entrants and the fact the U.S. Nationals is expected to attract the same volume and the same faces.
After defeating 16-time champion John Force for the first time in three consecutive meetings then beating three-time and reigning champion Ron Capps in eliminations Sunday, J.R. Todd – a Funny Car king himself – expressed respect for both opponents and said, “So far, it looks like we’re G.O.A.T. hunting.”
Steve Johnson said Pro Stock Motorcycle expert George Bryce gave him the secret to success on the Mac-Rack Suzuki: “Open the hood and shove as much money as you can underneath it.”
Top Alcohol Funny Car’s Bob McCosh, a first-time winner after 40 years of trying, coined the term “tinkeritis” – something he doesn’t want to have. He said “tinkeritis” causes someone to tinker with the car to the point of missing the opportunity to win.
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK - THE HITTERS KEEP ON HITTING ON A PACKED DAY AT THE PARK
CHANGE OF PLANS - NHRA officials announced a schedule change for Sunday’s eliminations at Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals at Summit Motorsports Park.
Eliminations will now begin at 10 a.m. Eastern on Sunday in the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series, starting with Top Fuel. Gates will open at 7:30 a.m.
Other classes racing on Sunday include the FuelTech NHRA Pro Mod Series presented by Type A Motorsports, Flexjet Factory Stock Showdown, Top Alcohol Dragster and Top Alcohol Funny Car. Action in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series categories – minus TAD and TAFC – was completed on Saturday.
A GOOD MISTAKE - It is not very often you hear a driver talk about how a mistake actually helped move them forward in their career.
But that is exactly the sentiment shared by rookie sensation Gaige Herrera who, up until a red light start in the finals of the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals two weeks ago in Bristol, Tennessee, was perfect. He was perfect in qualifying. He was perfect on Sunday. But that little mistake finally replaced the zero in the round loss column with a new mark.
“After going red in Bristol, it took the wind out of my sails,” Herrera said. “But to bounce back and get the No. 1 qualifier (Saturday) was big for the whole team.I started off on an incredible season and I knew there would be bumps in the road. I was expecting it. And in Bristol it just felt like something was going to happen.
“You can’t always come out here expecting to win. It was a weight off my shoulders, it is suddenly not so much pressure. I just have to get back to my old routine that I had at the beginning of the season. I tried a new routine in Bristol and it ended up biting me.”
While his winning streak was snapped in Bristol, his No. 1 qualifier streak continues. Herrera added his fifth top qualifier award of the season Saturday at Summit Motorsports Park with a 6.785-second pass at 198.76 mph.
REMEMBERING A LEGEND - As a slow and steady rain shower lightly tapped on the window of the John Force Racing hauler, the legend himself slouched on his couch - still in his fire suit, hours from any possibility of racing - and let out a sigh.
Alone for a few moments amid the hustle and bustle of a normal race day routine, John Force looked toward the sky and began to speak to a figure unseen in the room: “(Bill) Bader, you’re up there now, stop the rain, would ya?"
It was one of the first quiet moments Force had to think about the first NHRA national event held at the famed Summit Motorsports Park without the man who put it on the map, legendary track owner Bill Bader Sr. One year ago at this race, moments after the celebrations had ended and the trophies were handed out, the racing community was shocked to learn that Bader had lost his life in an accident at his home in Idaho.
While the news was a somber moment amid the celebrations of John Force Racing driver Robert Hight’s first win at the facility, it was an especially hard blow for Force himself, who has become synonymous with entertaining, fire-breathing passes under the lights at the national event and annual Night Under Fire held in front of tens of thousands of rabid race fans each year.
To Force, Bader was a modern-day P.T. Barnum. He understood the sport like few before him, and revolutionized the promotion and entertainment value of the drag racing profession. To Force, few did it better.
“I was friends with the man. I learned a lot from him -- he was one of the best promoters in the business,” Force recalled. “People don’t realize you don’t run a racetrack just one day a year, you run it year round. He understood that. He worked with the big names, and he worked with the small names. When I met the man, I was one of the small names. He helped me build my brand and I had a lot of respect for him for that. He was also a family man, like me. He was always teaching his kids how to put on a show.”
Of course, it wasn’t just his kids that learned a thing or two from Bader. When Force was a struggling young racer, some kind words and snippets of advice helped put on a path to 16 NHRA championships.
“I am a stress-filled guy, and Bader taught me that stress is part of it,” Force said. “He said, ‘Get used to it.’ I’d come in here and I’d say, ‘I’m broke and things are going bad. The car won’t run. I’m sick to my stomach.’ He said to me, ‘You don’t think I have the same feelings you have?’ And he gave me advice on how to handle it. I learned so much from him.”
Bader left behind his son, Bill Bader Jr., who had already taken the reins at the track for more than two decades prior to his father’s death, and his entire family had a hand in its day-to-day operation at one point. Bader Jr. has continued in the tradition of his father, and in many ways built upon his legacy, turning Summit Motorsports Park into one of the finest drag racing facilities in the world.
But what made the elder Bader special was his never-ending dedication to the heart and soul of the sport -- the fans.
“He was so good at what he did, not because of the crowds, not because of the money he made, but because at the end of the day he would come down to the track at the end of the race, stand beside me, and watch the fireworks,” Force said. “I’ve said this a million times: When I get beat, I go to the stands and I watch the races. And he was the same way. He was a fan first.
“I’ve only met a few people like him in my lifetime that truly get it and were really good at what they did. It ain’t about the race. We’re here to entertain the fans. He got that. And he loved to watch those fireworks. He loved to watch those big trucks race down there and the wheelstanders and all of it. He just really loved the racing.”
Bader purchased Norwalk Dragway in April 1974 at the age of 31. He slowly transformed the track -- later named Norwalk Raceway -- into the gem it is today. He helped create the wildly popular Night Under Fire exhibition race, of which Force was a regular, and created a calendar of events that drew in fans from around the world.
Originally a track with the International Hot Rod Association, the track held its first race under the banner of the NHRA in 2007 with the inaugural NHRA Summit Nationals.
Bader retired from his role in 2005, handing the reins to his son, but often returned to the track for big events.
After Bader’s death, Force returned to the track to speak at the celebration of life event held after the national event last year, and shared a few memories that stood out from his yearly visits to the facility.
“I remember when they rolled me out in a coffin and my T-shirt said ‘The Nightmare Continues’ because I had won two championships,” Force recalled. “I was scared to death, because I certainly don’t like being in a coffin, but they rolled me to the starting line and that is how they introduced me. He just always had something up his sleeve.
“He also always remembered to honor the military. That’s very important to me, I’m old school. He always welcomed members of the military and had planes flying over or something. He always had a hook or gimmick. Nobody will ever replace him. His boy has a shot. He is his own man and he learned from the best, but I think they will be fine if they continue to promote this the same way.”
As Force racked his brain for more memories of his time at the track, the memories came flooding back.
“(My kids) got to see those amazing fireworks growing up,” Force said. “I still get caught up in all of it now. The burning down of the wall (behind the staging lanes). The ice cream. What he would give to the kids. There was always something special.”
Force was of course referencing the famous burning down of the giant wall beside the control tower by the fire-breathing jet semi of Bob Motz and others. He was also talking about perhaps one of the most famous features of the facility - the $1 pound of ice cream.
“Eric Medlen loved ice cream,” said Force in reference to the late JFR driver who perished in a testing accident in 2007. “He was always freaking out anytime we came here.”
Of course, one unforeseen circumstance of Bader’s death was Force’s own inward look at his own life. Following Bader’s accident, combined with a number of personal incidents in his life involving close friends and family members, Force began to reflect on his own mortality as he continues to strap himself into a machine traveling in excess of 330 miles per hour.
“When it happened, it just freaked me out,” Force admitted. “It made me think, I’ve been on edge in a racecar more times than you’d believe. But I thought it over and realized anything can happen to you at any time. So I thought, ‘I’m just going to stick with racing and stay with what I know.’ (Bader) loved this sport. It broke my heart, I really loved the guy. When Robert won the race and we were celebrating and I ran into (his daughter) Bobbie and she was crying, I knew something was wrong. They are just the best family and they work just like him.
“They are special people. They know how to run racetracks. They lived it every week. He and Bruton Smith, they did it right. If I was going to own a racetrack -- and that is one of my dreams -- I would want it run like this. I remember joking with Bobbie once, ‘If your dad stays there forever, come with me and show me how to do it.’”
With Force less than a year away from turning 75, and plenty of reminders of his mortality around him, the motorsports hall of famer has found solace in an unfamiliar place -- an old, dilapidated Bible originally belonging to his father. The pages are yellow, and his team has had to help him bind it together, but he has found comfort inside its pages.
While he doesn’t always understand some of the deeper meanings behind some of the passages, he has learned to lean on that Bible in his daily life, reading it each morning and even on planes when he is traveling.
“All of this happening around me, it makes you realize,” Force said. “So last year, I started reading the Bible. I grew up with the Bible. This one was given to me in ‘57 when I was in like third or fourth grade at a little church in Redwood Creek on the Indian reservations of northern Humboldt County in northern California. With so many things that happened last year -- Bader, people that were my age, my friends -- I thought I need to read through this thing.
“I go into our library, and I never go into the library because I never read nothing, but I find this old Bible. I opened it up and it had my father’s handwriting and in it was all of the children, his wife, all when they were born. And I thought, ‘I’d never read this, now’s your chance.’
“I take it to the hotels and read it on the planes. I had a guy next to me who said, ‘Sir, could you read quietly?’ He was very nice, but his wife went off on him. She said, ‘The man is reading the Bible, you need to shut your mouth.’ But I’ve had other people lean over and say they admire my reading it. I tell them, ‘Half of it I don’t understand, but I’m getting into it.’”
Closing in on that magic age of 75, an age he once said would be the official end to his racing career, is he truly any closer to hanging up his firesuit and calling it quits as a driver?
“I don’t put a date on it,” Force said. “I thought years back, when I turned 75, that’s when I’m done and I told people that, but when I said that it was five years away. But here it is. Next year I’ll be 75 and it’s like, I don’t feel any different. Do I get tired? Airports are probably the worst, but I don’t feel any closer to calling it quits. I still love what I do.”
FAITH IN THE FAST LANE - Josh Hart walked over to the fence at Summit Motorsports Park and looked at the giant R+L Carriers loading dock. It was busy for a Friday afternoon, unlike the pits, as rain fell on the track. He was hoping for a break in the weather where he could represent the same trucking company that advertises it can ship "anything, anywhere, and at any time."
It was a moment of reflection for Hart, who described his marketing partnership with R+L Carriers as a program he wouldn't have imagined having in a million years. The Top Fuel driver who won in his professional debut said the program has been more of a learning experience than anything.
"I learned that the R+L is not R plus L; it's an R with a cross in the center with an L," Hart pointed out.
But this was the least of the lessons he learned from Roby Roberts, the company's owner.
Hart and Roberts had a friendship that spanned for decades. And when Hart won in his debut, no one was more proud of him than his friend. Apparently, there was one thing Roberts wasn't proud of. It was the Fearless Racing logo on his firesuit.
"The owner called me up, and he said, 'Tell me about your logo,'" Hart said, referring to him only as the owner. "The logo at the time was Fearless Racing, which was a skull, and it was holding a dragster, which was a very Angel of Death-type of logo.
"He said, 'Well, I just want you to know that a company like mine would never sponsor you because of that logo.'
"And I said, 'Wow, I never looked at it that way.'"
Hart learned valuable lesson No. 2; i.e., perception is everything.
But it's the third lesson, Hart said, that has been the life changer. The two broached the subject of faith, and Hart was open to any and all discussions.
"Literally right there on the phone, I accepted Jesus Christ, and it was literally life-changing," Hart said.
So inspired was Hart with his new direction in life that he made the decision to give back to R+L Carriers.
"As a token of my appreciation, and not many people know this when we debuted the R+L sponsorship, we did not have any type of deal," Hart admitted. "I did that as a thank you to him."
The gratitude included a party for the company, and a fully wrapped race car, all the while at the race directly across the street from the facility he was looking at during Friday's rain delay.
"I did not expect anything in return, but doors opened for me right after that, and we were able to make a deal, and it's been life-changing in so many ways," Hart said. "This partnership is on an absolutely different level. It has nothing to do necessarily with just the race car. Last year we used it as a recruiting tool for him, and this year we're using it for B2B accounts. And beyond that, I think they really just want to create better morale for their team and give them something to cheer for. I'm proud to say that I was qualified to be that guy."
Hart loves nothing more than being an ambassador for R+L, but not because he's contractually bound to do so. In the interest of fair reporting, there is no official contract - just a handshake, and a commitment to one another.
"I'm connecting as many people as I can to R+L," Hart said. "There's no smoke and mirrors. It's a great company, and everybody uses them. They really do ship anything, anywhere, anytime. And it's been very positive for even my business; we use them religiously."
And for Hart, that's not a play on words. - Bobby Bennett
#2FAST2TASTY ROUNDUP - Justin Ashley has made a living out of the #2Fast2Tasty challenge.
To add to his four national-event victories this season, Ashley has added a quartet of wins in the specialty race that awards end-of-season bonus points and $10,000 to winners made up of the semifinalists from the previous race.
Ashley defeated Doug Kalitta to earn his fourth win in the Saturday shootout, limping across the line with a 4.063-second pass at 228.61 mph as both drivers lost traction during the run. Ashley added a win over Austin Prock in round one.
With his win Saturday, Ashley has banked an additional 12 points to be added to his total entering the Countdown to the Championship, and has added $40,000 to the team account.
In the Funny Car showdown, 138 wins and six world championships exist between finalists Ron Capps and Robert Hight.
In the showdown, it was Capps coming out on top with a 3.887 at 327.74 mph, besting Hight’s 3.933 at 290.44 mph. While the shootout win improved Capps’ qualifying time, it still wasn’t enough to overcome Bob Tasca who held on for the pole position. Capps had a win over Chad Green in round one.
Deric Kramer won the Pro Stock showdown over Greg Anderson, clocking a 6.622 at 207.02 mph in a wire-to-wire victory to best Anderson’s 6.623 at 206.99 mph. Kramer defeated Cristian Cuadra in round one.
In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Angie Smith rode around Hector Arana Jr. with a 6.967 at 196.96 mph. Arana had a 7.006 at 197.68 mph. Smith upset Gaige Herrera in round one when the streaking rider went red on the tree.
DON’T COUNT OUT BOB - Everyone should know by now, you never count out Bob Tasca.
Tasca drove to his third No. 1 qualifier of the season Saturday, holding off a hard-charging Capps in the waning hours to top the field for the 12th time in his career.
Tasca’s 3.884-second pass at 329.26 mph in the heat of the day during Q2 propelled him up the charts, and was just enough to keep Capps at bay during a hail mary run of 3.887 at 327.74 mph. Matt Hagan (3.892), Alexis DeJoria (3.901) and Tim Wilkerson (3.903) round out the top five.
In fact, all three of Tasca’s runs -- a 3.909, a 3.884 and a 3.908 -- were bracket-like, giving him plenty of confidence entering eliminations Sunday.
“You have seen this car perform this year at a high level,” Tasca said. “Consistency was the missing link for this team to go on a run. Whether it is a hot track, cold track, we have proven this car can run.”
Tasca will face Bobby Bode in round one.
WORTH THE WAIT - Dallas Glenn always dreamed of one day being able to turn on win lights and have the type of season that Greg Anderson and Jason Line enjoyed throughout the 1990s and 2000s.
Growing up racing quarter midgets and other circle-track cars as a child, Glenn realized from an early age that wasn’t the life for him. When his dad, Steve, went drag racing, Glenn thought he would give that life a try, serving as a crew member on his dad’s team at the age of 16. That, he said, is where he got hooked.
Soon after, Glenn was competing himself in the Super Pro class in a ‘55 Chevy wagon, and then moved into the sportsman ranks behind the wheel of a 1968 El Camino. Not long after that, Glenn got his first taste of the high-horsepower world of Pro Stock racing.
Glenn got a job with KB Titan Racing and soon found himself on the road crewing for Anderson and Line, enjoying successes from the starting line as his famed drivers hoisted trophy after trophy.
So when KB Titan Racing driver Bo Butner retired from full-time driving duties at the end of 2020, Glenn got his own shot behind the wheel.
“It’s always been part of my competitive nature,” Glenn said. “Anytime I am watching somebody do something like that and is extremely competitive and achieving great things, I want to give it my shot and see how I stack up. I always felt like I had the ability to do it, it was just reaching down and pulling that to the surface.”
During his rookie year, Glenn won three races and was named the 2021 NHRA Rookie of the Year. It was obvious that Glenn was on his way to big things.
While 2022 wasn’t as successful, Glenn has performed with a fury in 2023, winning three of the season’s first seven races for the class and leading the Pro Stock championship by a wide margin over second-place Deric Kramer.
“I don’t have too many complaints" about the start to the year, Glenn said. “I am just trying to keep the momentum going. It’s really hard to win one of these, and usually when you win you have a couple of lucky rounds in there. I kind of ran out of luck on certain races. In Bristol, I was against Greg (Anderson) and I was beating him when I got a little too out of shape and had to bail out to save the car. You look at Charlotte where I just made two little mistakes, that cost me that one. These races are really tough and you want to come out here and do the best you can. I’ve got a really, really good car and I need to capitalize on it because it can disappear in an instant.”
And Glenn knows a thing or two about how fickle this sport can be.
While he was helping crew Anderson’s car at KB Racing, the winningest driver in Pro Stock history suffered through a two-year losing streak, and that reality hangs around in the back of Glenn’s mind at all times.
“Greg, being the most successful Pro Stock driver out here with 101 race wins, went through a streak of two years where he didn’t win a single race while I was working for him,” Glenn said. “So there are definitely highs and lows, and there are times you are struggling and times where you have the car to beat. I need to capitalize while I have the car to beat. I feel like we have done a pretty good job of that. I had three race wins in four races and that fourth race I lost by four-thousandths in the final. As long as I go out there and do my job and make good runs, I feel like they are definitely going to know I was here.”
Of course, that time with Anderson, as well as Line, were also influential in teaching Glenn what a strong work ethic looks like, and how hard work and dedication can pay off in the end.
“I look up to a lot of people, but really Jason Line and how influential he is on building and working on his own cars, and Greg Anderson, are at the top,” Glenn said. “There is not a single person that works as hard as Greg Anderson. He is in the shop seven days a week, all day long. You can’t keep him out of the shop. That kind of work ethic, with the determination he has, he can go out there and outrun everybody by five-hundredths and then come back and point out 20 things that went wrong and what we can do better.”
With wins coming at Pomona, Las Vegas and Chicago in a four-race span, and the car consistently among the best each and every week, is it too early to start thinking about what might be at the end of the year?
“That is too far down the road,” Glenn said with a laugh. “If I have this car, this performance where I am constantly in the top three or four every session starting in Reading for the first race of the Countdown, then I will start thinking about it. You can always go into the Countdown leading by 500 points if you want, but if you don’t do good in the Countdown then it doesn’t mean anything.”
Glenn had his worst qualifying effort of the season Saturday in Norwalk, placing his Chevrolet Camaro seventh on the ladder.
A UNIQUE TEAM - Never in the wildest dreams of veteran Top Fuel racer Clay Millican’s mind did he ever imagine that he, competing full time with the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series, would one day be sharing a team with drivers in NASCAR, IndyCar and a wide range of motorsport disciplines.
“I would have never thought I’d be at the 24 Hours of Daytona or on the starting line of the Indy 500,” Millican said. “That is something I never imagined. But it has certainly expanded my horizon to motorsports a little bit.”
Millican is of course referencing his new partnership with Rick Ware Racing which has taken ownership of his 11,000-horsepower dragster. RWR owns teams in NASCAR, IndyCar, IMSA and a few smaller series. And now, of course, NHRA.
This weekend, running the red, white and blue colors of the host track’s Summit Racing Equipment sponsor, Millican was quick to point to the capabilities of his new team as a big reason behind both his successes, and his struggles, this season.
Millican placed his machine 10th on the ladder Saturday with a weekend-best 3.737 at 329.91 mph
“The amount of parts and pieces and the inventory has improved greatly,” Millican said. “Obviously it took us a little while to get our feet under us. We were used to those broken-in parts and those new parts tricked us a little bit. (Rick Ware) is a ball of energy all of the time. After every single run the group gets a text from him, whether it is good or bad. He keeps up with all that is happening no matter how busy he is.”
Millican’s reference to the highest of highs and the lowest of lows of course resides in his successes on the track this season. Millican won the race at Chicago earlier this year, but outside of that has not won a round of competition in seven other races. This weekend, he hopes to right the ship.
Of course, a trip to Summit Motorsports Park also brings back a wave of memories for the veteran racer. Millican began his career turning laps at the track with the International Hot Rod Association before having an opportunity to do the same in NHRA competition. In fact, Millican was reminded of just how many years he has been competing at the track when a fan brought to him a press kit to sign from an IHRA season way back in 2004.
“Every blue mood I will put my name (in Ebay) just to see what pops up, but I’ve never seen something like that before,” Millican said. “It is usually hero cards I come across, but that was pretty cool. It brings back a lot of memories. (Former team owner) Peter Lehman was so far ahead of the game back then and he is the reason I am here to do this today.”
BACK-TO-BACK - Leah Pruett’s 3.684-second pass at 333.08 mph from Friday night held up to earn her back-to-back No. 1 qualifiers. Pruett was also the top qualifier two weeks ago in Bristol, Tennessee, as she collected the 15th pole position of her career.
THE LOST ART OF THE GEARHEAD - Moments before rolling his car out of the pit area and into the staging lanes for his final qualifying session Saturday at Summit Motorsports Park, a visibly dirty Greg Anderson could be seen digging into the motor on his KB Titan Racing engine.
After a few consulting sessions with team members and a few more tweaks, Anderson stopped to sign autographs for a group of older fans that had gathered outside his hauler. Moments later, he was back at it, cranking away on the engine.
For Anderson, being a gearhead is a lost art in an increasingly younger pit area. To see the drivers getting too dirty is becoming a rarity, with pilots opting instead to oversee and serve as the face of the team. Whether bad or good, Anderson said it is a trend he is seeing more and more of in the pit area, and one he misses as those around him slowly start to become half his age.
“There are benefits (to working on your car) and there are negatives to it,” Anderson said. “Your mind is definitely cloudy if you have too much going through your mind. The thing that I have learned over all of these years in trying to race that tree - which is everything in this class right now - is you have to be able to clear your mind. The more you learn, the more you know, the more you feel every inch of that motor, the more it can work against you. These young kids that don’t know any better, that may be the perfect way to do it. I can’t fight that.”
Wedged between the hauler of 24-year-old up-and-comer Camrie Caruso, and some of his 30-something KB Titan Racing teammates, Anderson is beginning to feel the younger generation slowly taking over in the class. While he is happy to see the sport continue with a younger generation, he admits that it is taking more and more of his time away from the track just to keep up.
“It certainly makes you feel old, but is also drives you,” Anderson said. “It pushes you to get up in the morning and to go to the gym and it pushes you to try harder and do better. All they have done is come in and raise the price of poker out here. You’ve got to find a way to ante up, otherwise get out.
“There is nothing wrong with that. That is absolutely the way the evolution should be. I am going to hang with it as long as I can until it is time to get out. I don’t know when that will be yet, I am still trying to hang, but it is getting tougher every day.”
BRINGING IN THE BIG GUNS - Paul Lee knows a thing or two about running a business.
The owner of McLeod Racing, Lee knows that to be successful in business it takes the right people surrounding you. So when he watched some of his racing competitors have success of their own by bringing in heavy hitters to oversee operations, Lee knew it was time to up his game and bring in a hired gun.
“We want to do good. That is why we are out here,” Lee said. “We are not out here just to be here. We want to win rounds and, hopefully, someday win a race. That is the goal. So what do you have to do to get to a goal like that? Like any business, if you want to be successful, it is all about the people. You have to gather the right people.”
Beginning two weeks ago at the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals, Lee brought in John Medlen to serve as an advisor. While Jason Bunker remains Lee’s crew chief, Medlen has stepped in as a quality-control person, and in only two races together, he has uncovered plenty about Lee’s racing operation that has already moved them in the right direction.
“It has really been great because he has come across a lot of things that weren’t perfect,” Lee said. “These cars have to be perfect and you have to be very meticulous on details and there are not many people that are more detail oriented than he is. He has found a lot of little things with the car that have made it better.”
While he was unable to qualify in their first race together in Bristol, and the team has yet to win a round together this season, Lee made a step in the right direction this weekend by sneaking into the race in the 13th position position. Next up is winning that first round of the season. After that, the sky's the limit.
“This is why we brought him onboard, to help us do better,” Lee said. “He has been around a long time and he knows the intricacies and a lot of details that we may have overlooked. I think in the long run it will be great for us.”
HARTFORD BACK ON TOP - Matt Hartford collected his third No. 1 qualifier of the season Saturday at the NHRA Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals.
And, hopefully, ended a streak of poor performances.
Hartford opened the year with four qualifying efforts inside the top five in the season’s first five races, but has struggled in performance since with a couple of poor qualifying efforts and two-straight first round exits. Hartford is hoping that his third pole position of the year will help set him up for another run to success Sunday.
“That was huge for us,” Hartford said. “To put the car on the pole is a lot of momentum for us going into tomorrow. We are counting every point that we can and we are looking at qualifying No. 1 as points. It is going to mean something in the Countdown. Name me one person in Pro Stock right now that you think can’t win the championship? I certainly can’t. We have a chance to win the championship and it is the best chance we have ever had.”
He will face Fernando Cuadra in round one on Sunday.
RIGHT AROUND THE BEND - Chad Green has never won an NHRA race in Funny Car. He has never even been to a final.
But if you ask him, or pretty much anyone in the pit area at an NHRA race, they will tell you that it is coming - and soon.
The former Pro Mod racer from Midland, Texas, has enjoyed 36 starts behind the wheel of a nitro Funny Car, but up until this point, his successes have been few and far behind. His best finish in points - a 12th in 2022 - was marred with inconsistency, but this year something has clicked.
Led by crew chief Daniel Wilkerson, and serving as a pseudo member of the Tim Wilkerson race team, Green hasn’t made a final round yet this season, but he has been close. He has made the semifinals six times in eight races, and recorded his first No. 1 qualifier at the rain-affected New England Nationals three weeks ago.
Thanks to that incredible consistency, Green has managed to battle his way into the top five of the NHRA championship standings, sitting fourth entering the Summit Racing Equipment Nationals, sitting just behind heavy hitters Ron Capps, Matt Hagan and Robert Hight.
“Our team has come a long way,” Green said. “They have got a lot of practice going rounds this year and that has helped. It feels great to be running this well so consistently. We definitely feel that first win coming.”
Green said that the team began to come together at the end of 2022, and the success that the team has enjoyed to start 2023 has led to a snowball effect that is bringing out the best in everyone on the team.
“It really started coming together toward the end of last year with the car and the team,” Green said. “We put this team together the first of last year and most of the year we were growing and it has finally come together for us this year. I think the chemistry among the team has been key. We did change some parts on the car and, actually, we are not back to running as fast as we were at the end of last year. But it has been really consistent, and that has helped us.
“Success breeds success, and when we started having success early in the season in Gainesville, it has had a snowball effect amongst the team. They are more confident than ever.”
Green has qualified in the top half of the field in six of the eight races this year, adding another top half effort on Saturday with an eighth place run, and has advanced multiple rounds in every race but one this year. Now he looks forward to advancing that one extra round to reach his first Funny Car final. And, who knows, his first win.
“That would mean everything,” Green said. “That is the ultimate goal for all of us out here and in this class at this level. We all know how tough that is, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened for us. I definitely expect to get one.”
SHUT UP - Everyone has motivations in life that drive them.
Maybe it is trying to be the best in the world. Maybe it is trying to prove others wrong. And, just maybe, it is to shut others up.
Erica Enders is a five-time champion within the ranks of the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series Pro Stock division. Yet when the 44-time race winner began this year with a string of early round exits, the doubters and boobirds began to rear their ugly heads.
So when Enders finally broke through with her first race win of the season two weeks ago in Bristol, Tennessee, Enders had this to say to all of her doubters.
“I just wanted to get it off my back so everybody would just shut up,” Enders said. “We all know that we didn’t forget how to do what we do, we just struggled the early part of the season. There is no excuse for it, it is just what happened. We will now do our best to keep this going.”
Sitting a few spots outside of the top 10 in points entering the Thunder Valley Nationals, Enders’ victory propelled her into ninth. Now she is focused on a continual climb back into the conversation.
“I’ve been around long enough to know that the pendulum swings in two directions and I have been on both sides of it,” Enders said. “When you are on top, there is only one way to go. We just have to put our heads down, get to work, get through that bad part, and get after it. That is what makes the peaks that much sweeter.”
Enders continued her return to the top Saturday at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals, placing her machine second on the ladder with a 6.595 at 208.36 mph.
BACK IN THE GAME - TJ Zizzo made a dramatic return in May to his hometown track Route 66 Raceway outside of Chicago for the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series. While the veteran racer hadn’t been on track since late 2021, he took the Rust-Oleum “Rocket” Top Fuel dragster to the semifinals.
Zizzo also let his competitors know that the time his team dedicated to improving was going to pay off in 2023. This weekend at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals, Zizzo and the Rust-Oleum Top Fuel team returned to the track for only the second time in his career.
“We are full speed ahead, but we have had to traverse around a lot of parts that are just not correct in 2023,” said Zizzo, following a positive but challenging debut in Chicago. “Our team still has a lot of catching up to do. We will be prepared, but we can never be prepared enough. We will continue to put one foot in front of the other until we finally win after $10,000,000 and 10,000,000 hours of trying.”
Zizzo’s enthusiasm and work ethic have driven his Rust-Oleum team to completely overhaul their operation in the past two years. The team competed in Chicago with a new race car thanks to a generous offer by NHRA Hall of Fame driver and team owner, Don Schumacher. For years, Zizzo and his team competed on a budget repurposing quality parts and chassis to race with the better funded teams. They made a gallant effort and saw flashes of success. Zizzo feels like his career could now be turning a corner with an updated Top Fuel dragster.
“After St. Louis 2021, we knew we couldn't keep up with the best in the sport anymore,” said Zizzo. “We really tried hard with our older equipment and car, but we knew we needed to change. Don reached out to us and offered to build a car that could be competitive. We are still playing catch-up, and Chicago was a great first step but there are no guarantees in this sport which is what makes it so amazing.”
He had been able to keep his quality team of crew members intact but investing even more into a race team was not a decision he took lightly. He has continued to work with crew chief Mike Kern and has had support from crew chief consultant Rahn Tobler but the real key to his success has been the support of his family, his crew and long-time marketing partners like Rust-Oleum.
“I also couldn’t have done this without the support and encouragement of my team. Chicago was an emotional and hectic weekend,” said Zizzo. “Getting everything right goes beyond the parts when it comes to making a difference. In fact, it took us a solid year to get this car ready to go out and even feel comfortable making runs. We haven’t had a chance in my entire 30-plus years of driving to have the same equipment that our competitors have. We've always been a little behind, but we are catching up. It won’t happen overnight, but we are going to keep working hard.”
Unfortunately, Zizzo did not improve on his earlier efforts, failing to make the show on Saturday.
QUICK LEARNER - Newsflash - Camrie Caruso is a quick learner.
After splashing onto the scene in 2022 as the NHRA Rookie of the Year, Caruso has taken the next evolution in her racing game this season with her first career win at the NHRA Arizona Nationals in only the second race of the season.
She then added to that momentum with a stunning victory in the first-ever NHRA Pro Stock Allstar Callout at the NHRA event in Chicago, doing so from the No. 8 position on the ladder. The second-year driver was one of only eight drivers eligible to compete based on her qualifying efforts during the starts of the season, and she went on to defeat Cristian Cuadra, Troy Coughlin Jr. and Aaron Stanfield to claim the top prize and the specialty trophy.
That referenced qualifying effort includes six starts in the top half of the field in eight races, topped by a pole position in Pomona.
Now, the driver of the Tequila Comisario Chevrolet Camaro is looking to build off that momentum heading into the summer stretch which began this weekend in Norwalk.
“I set a lot of goals for our team and last year we accomplished some of them, but I knew this year I wanted to start winning races and chase that Pro Stock championship,” Caruso said. “We picked up the win in Arizona and then another No. 1 qualifier at the Winternationals. The Tequila Comisario team is moving in the right direction. I felt we had a Camaro that could have won Bristol, but we had a bad second round that really wasn’t our fault. I am not going to make any excuses, but we have a good race car.”
That close-call in Bristol came after a lengthy rain delay. Caruso was one of the first pairs to tackle the track after the delay and was pulling away from Cristian Caruso when both race cars began sashaying at the top end. Caruso wisely lifted and deployed her parachute to maintain control, but lost the second-round matchup.
“The Safety Safari does an amazing job every race,” Caruso said. “They bust their butts when it rains and they have to get the track prepped. It was just one of those bad timing deals that we were in the first pair of cars to go the full quarter mile after the rain delay. I am glad we didn’t have a serious issue and that was a learning experience for me. I don’t think I have ever been that sideways in a Pro Stock car. I would have liked to have had the round win, but keeping my car in one piece is more important.”
For the third generation drag racer, her second full-time season behind the wheel on a Pro Stock race car is a continual learning experience. Last season she raced to one final round and secured her first career No. 1 qualifier. She finished the regular season in the top 10 and then battled through the Countdown against some of the toughest competition the category has seen in recent memory. This year with more experience Caruso is leaning on and learning from her teammates.
“I learned a ton in my rookie year but this year I am still picking up so many new things,” said Caruso. “I love racing in Pro Stock and I can’t thank my family and my marketing partners enough for all their support. We are a new team and we are looking for funding all the time. We picked some new partners this season like Big Jeff Audio and that has really helped our program. We are going to continue to work with new people throughout the season to go along with our Powerbuilt Tools, VP Racing Lubricants and DENSO relationships.”
A LASTING IMPACT - The drag racing world lost one of its biggest fans and supporters June 23, with the passing of NHRA team owner Cathi Maynard.
Maynard was a true champion in the greatest sense of the word, having battled her multiple sclerosis diagnosis for over 35 years before succumbing to illness-related complications after a lengthy and arduous fight.
While still considered somewhat of a newcomer to the industry in an official capacity, there is no denying the incredible impact and lasting mark Maynard left on the NHRA community. It was no secret that she loved fast cars and high horsepower, and as an Army veteran, Maynard quickly adopted Tony Schumacher as her favorite race car driver. She was the driving force behind the Maynard family becoming involved in drag racing, first as sponsors in 2021 before forming JCM Racing during the 2022 season, and fans of ‘The Sarge’ can credit Maynard for his return to full-time competition after a multi-year hiatus from the sport.
“She was such a fighter, such an amazing person, and she’s in a better place,” said Schumacher. “It’s a privilege to have known her, and I would say, by far, I’m a better man for knowing her. She was so kind and so good to people. No one that met her left a lesser person.”
BETTER LUCK NEXT TIME - There were a number of drivers that just missed the jam-packed pro fields Saturday.
Four drivers were sent home in Top Fuel, as T.J. Zizzo, Mike Bucher, Terry Totten and Scott Farley failed to make the show. Kyle Wurtzel was the last man in with a 3.822.
Dave Richards was sent packing in Funny Car, just missing the 16-car field.
Fernando Cuadra Jr. and Alan Prusiensky failed to make the show in Pro Stock.
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK - SOGGY DAY ENDS IN HAPPY FANS AND NITRO, THE BADER WAY
THE CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE, BADER STYLE - Bill Bader Jr. looked out at the rain-soaked Summit Motorsports Park, and despite the unfavorable weather, dozens of other pressing issues were running through his head ahead of the Summit Racing NHRA Nationals.
The customer experience was not the best, as almost every ticketholder scurried for shelter.
“That was the biggest thing on my mind all week,” Bader said. “Making sure that we have done our level best to meet or exceed our guests’ expectations that’s the ultimate measuring stick. It’s not profit and loss; it’s never been profit and loss; it’s been your level of guest satisfaction. We must continue to meet or exceed expectations, or we fail.”
Bader has guided the Summit Racing Motorsports Park facility through the best and worst of times, including 2020, when Covid forced him to shut down the facility for the rest of the season.
Bader keeps on keeping on in a world that still plays host to labor shortages and supply chain interruptions. He’s been so busy lately the 60th anniversary of the track built in 1963 just slipped up on him.
“My father bought the track in ’73, so we’ve owned the park for 50 years,” Bader said. “That, to me, is more of a personal thing, and what’s made it personal is it was really important to my dad. He always talked about 50 years being such an incredible benchmark, and he stayed involved even if it was just working a few events a year here because he wanted to make it to the Big 5-0. So, I dedicated this year to him because I knew how meaningful it was to him.
“The anniversaries are wonderful. At the end of the day, my wife will tell you; I don’t remember birthdays, I don’t remember anniversaries. I remember when my two sons were born because I was in the delivery room, and it’s traumatic to watch that, and miraculous. But generally, to me, it’s about business as usual and making sure our guests are happy.”
Bader only wishes he could forget the call on race day last year.
Bill Bader Sr. was killed in an accident while working on his property.
“That is something I will never forget, and it’s very top of mind,” Bader said. “I talk to my dad more now than I probably have in the last ten years combined because I feel like I know that he’s there. I’ll be out on a run, or I’ll be in typical Bader fashion, huffing and puffing about something, and I will say, ‘Okay, Dad, what are your thoughts here? What do you think?”
“And it’s funny, I always get a response to every question, to every thought, and I think some of that is divine, and some of it is that this year marks my 46th year here, and I worked very closely with my father until he passed. I just know how he thinks. I know what he would say. And so, there is a closeness we share now because before I had to send him an email, he was on the mountain, and he was telling me about the 8 million things he had to get done between sunrise and sunset, so I had to schedule something.
“One out of 100 times, I could call, and he would pick up the phone. I think he liked it that way, with no cell reception; I think he liked the solitude. But now, I talk to him all the time. And it’s funny because every recollection, every thought, every memory, every moment, they all just put a smile on my face. There is nothing somber; there’s nothing sad; there’s no anger. It’s just all an extraordinary experience.”
The more he moves forward, the more Bader faces the reality he’s become just like his dad. It’s a notion he’s become oblivious to.
“My father to me was Superman,” Bader said. “He was the guy that felt no pain; he was the guy that always had a smile on his face. He was incredibly graceful and universally revered. His personality was extraordinary. And I recognize the fact that I’m more of an introverted personality: I’m a little more intense, I’m a little more passionate, I’m a little more focused. So, I guess I probably am oblivious because if there’s something between me and my mission, I don’t see it because I am laser beam-focused on whatever is at the other end of my journey. So, I probably am a little oblivious to that.
“I’m very appreciative and respectful and understand the fishbowl that I operate in, but I’m not my dad.” - Bobby Bennett
A YEAR OF FIRSTS - On a stormy afternoon one year ago at Summit Motorsports Park, three drivers enjoyed maiden voyages to victory lane at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals, home of the coveted ice cream scoop trophy.
Mike Salinas, Robert Hight, and Angelle Sampey all won their first of the rarest of awards on the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series tour. In contrast, Erica Enders won for the second year in a row and the third time overall at the northern-Ohio facility.
This year, three of the four drivers are back to defend their titles at the early-summer stop in Norwalk, Ohio, with those three drivers having already visited victory lane this season.
In Top Fuel, defending race winner Salinas won the season-opening Gatornationals in Gainesville, Florida, but hasn’t enjoyed much success since. Instead, young hotshot Justin Ashley has been the dominating force on the tour, leading the championship standings entering this weekend with four total victories.
Ashley has collected victories in back-to-back races at Phoenix and Pomona, followed by another pair in winning the rain-delayed New England Nationals and the Thunder Valley Nationals, both held two weeks ago in Bristol. The other winners on tour this season are Antron Brown, Austin Prock, and Clay Millican.
Steve Torrence and Brittany Force, both seeking their first wins of the season, sit second and third in the standings entering this weekend’s race. Force and championship leader Ashley are both seeking their first-ever wins in Norwalk.
In Funny Car, the race was shaping up to be far less competitive, with Matt Hagan and defending Norwalk winner Hight combining to win the season’s first five stops, but both have struggled mightily since. Three different drivers - Tim Wilkerson, Bob Tasca, and Ron Capps - have won the last three races, with Capps using a victory at the most recent race in Bristol to nudge him into the Funny Car championship lead.
Hagan, who leads all Funny Car drivers with three wins, sits second, followed by Hight with two wins. Chad Green, who is seeking his first-ever win in Funny Car, is fourth in the championship standings, followed by Alexis DeJoria.
By far the biggest surprise of the season, Enders, who is seeking a fourth win and third-straight at the Summit NHRA Nationals, won for the first time two weeks ago in Bristol, putting behind her an awful start to the year.
Dallas Glenn enters this weekend’s race with the championship lead off the strength of three wins at Pomona, Las Vegas, and Chicago, opening a commanding lead over Deric Kramer and Matt Hartford in second and third, respectively.
The other winners in Pro Stock this season are Troy Coughlin, Camrie Caruso, and Kramer. Of the top five drivers in the Pro Stock standings, four are seeking their first wins at Summit Motorsports Park.
Finally, in Pro Stock Motorcycle, young rider Gaige Herrera has won three of the four races contested in the two-wheel category to open a significant lead over Eddie Krawiec. The other rider to earn a victory this season - Steve Johnson - enters this weekend’s event third in the standings.
TRIBUTE TO THE FANS - Ron Capps knew one thing and one thing only Friday night - he wasn’t lifting.
Despite a cockpit filled with clutch dust, a fogged visor, and a quick glance at the wall being a touch too close for comfort, Capps said that he was on too good of a run to lift off the throttle.
“It was on a quick run for conditions like that,” Capps recalled. “I stopped seeing very well at about 700 feet. We were fogged up and had clutch dust flying around, making it more difficult, but I thought, ‘I am not lifting for these fans and Guido and the guys.’ It was a ride.”
Despite those challenges, Capps drove his NAPA Toyota Supra Funny Car to the top of the charts Friday evening under the lights, recording a 3.898-second pass at 331.28 mph. If it holds, it will be his second top qualifier award of the season.
“I was in the staging lanes and was watching the numbers get better and better,” Capps said. “I saw (Crew Chief Dean Antonelli) Guido come back in the box a couple of times. Working on these cars when I was younger, I knew what he was thinking. This could be low ET conditions, so you need to take advantage of it.”
While the end result was certainly a positive one, the wait just to make that pass was excruciating. Still, Capps made the most of the delay and even became a fan himself.
“I didn’t want to disappear into the trailer; the fans need to be taken care of,” Capps said. “We waited it out and enjoyed some time with the fans.”
DREAMS CAN COME TRUE - Justin Ashley has dreamt of weekends like his one in Bristol, Tennessee.
Going into that weekend, already leading the class in wins with back-to-back victories in Phoenix and Pomona to open the year, Ashley entered the Thunder Valley Nationals, like many of his peers, with an opportunity to earn two trophies. Thanks to a rainout at the New England Nationals one weekend prior, the competitors in the nitro categories had a unique opportunity to complete two full races in one weekend.
And wouldn’t you know it, Ashley won them both.
If back-to-back wins weren’t enough, Ashley’s sweep of two points-paying races in a single weekend was a unique achievement that few drivers ever have an opportunity to equal.
“That was the kind of weekend that you dream about as a kid,” Ashley said. “To actually have it come to fruition, it almost can’t be described in words. I am really proud of the guys and really proud of our Phillips Connect team. Just to win one round of racing is something - sometimes, it is difficult just to qualify for these races. To win one race is special, but to win two in the same weekend is even more special.
“We are really blessed to have been in that situation, but it is really important to reflect and enjoy those wins and those weekends when they happen because it is so difficult. But it is also important to put it in the past when it is time.”
Reflecting on the success he enjoyed in Bristol, it was an emotionally taxing feat for Ashley to turn on those eight win lights, but it was even more exhausting for his crew to turn around the car and present it for competition that many times in two days.
“It was mentally and emotionally exhausting,” Ashley admitted. “You are talking about eight rounds of racing and having to be on your A game each and every time because the margin of error is so small. But while it was exhausting for me mentally, I think it was physically exhausting for the guys to be able to turn the car around like that in a short period of time eight times in two days and nine total runs over the entirety of the weekend.
“It is just a testament to the Phillips Connect Toyota guys going through that and turning the car around like they did. I was mentally and emotionally exhausted, but they were physically drained.”
Of course, to get the opportunity to double-up in Bristol, Ashley and his fellow competitors had to wait out a weekend full of rain at New England Dragway, something that he and his team found themselves doing once again on Friday. As rain showers moved into the Norwalk area just a few hours before the start of the professional sessions, Ashley found himself again sitting and waiting - an additional challenge as drivers try to get up for competitive rounds.
“All of the drivers and all of the team are routine-oriented, so waiting out rain can be a little difficult,” Ashley said. “When you get thrown off of that routine, it messes with your adrenaline a little. It can certainly be an adjustment, but everyone faces the same circumstances. At the end of the day, when you are in the car, and they put the canopy down, the adrenaline starts to pick back up, and you know you are back in your happy place.”
With nearly half of his career wins coming in the first eight races of this season, the former NHRA Rookie of the Year has ascended to the top of the Top Fuel standings with an impressive 17 round wins and only four losses.
But those successes have indeed been feast or famine. While he has four wins in his four final round visits this season, on the flip side has lost in the first round in three of the four other races.
Still, with a start like he has enjoyed, Ashley is willing to look past the lows and focus on what this team has been able to accomplish when they have got it right.
“When you look at the Top Fuel field, it is the best it has ever been in NHRA history,” Ashley said. “When you look at the season as a whole, we have a long way to go, but eight races in with the depth and quality of this field, I do have to pinch myself. I feel like I am just along for the ride because we have such a great team top to bottom, right now. I am fortunate to play a small role in that.”
Coming off of the high of such a successful weekend and start to the year, Ashley said that it is important that he put that behind him if his team wants to compete for higher aspirations, including contending for his first Top Fuel world championship.
“Once that race was behind us, I put it out of my mind,” Ashley admitted. “There is data and information you can take and apply to future races, but other than that, mentally, it is just the same approach each and every weekend. What happened in the past is in the past. We are just focused on doing the best job that we can each and every weekend. It is going to take consistency and going up and down the racetrack A to B every time to give ourselves a chance to win.”
Ashley began his quest for three in a row with a top five in qualifying on Friday, with a 3.708-second pass at 332.59 mph, placing him fifth on the charts after one qualifying session.
MAY THE ‘ODDS’ BE EVER IN YOUR FAVOR - If you are looking for a driver to bet on this weekend, you might as well make it Steve Torrence.
While he has yet to win this season - instead riding a pair of runner-up finishes to a second-place standing in the championship coming into the Summit Nationals - Torrence knows how to get it done at the Norwalk facility. In fact, Torrence has won this race three times in his career, but the real secret is in the numbers.
Torrence won at Summit Motorsports Park in 2017, 2019, and 2021, and if the streak of wins in odd-numbered years keeps going, this might just be the year to add a fourth win to that tally.
Despite not owning a win this season, Torrence’s CAPCO Contractors Top Fuel Toyota was the quickest car on the property two weeks ago in Bristol, Tennessee, which has reinvigorated the four-time champion. And on Friday, he was once again a force to be reckoned with, placing his dragster second behind top qualifier Leah Pruett with a 3.688 at 332.10 mph.
“Everybody keeps asking ‘what’s wrong?” Torrence said. “And there’s nothing wrong. We’re more than halfway through the regular season, and we’re second in points behind a guy that’s won four races. That tells you everything you need to know about these bad-to-the-bone CAPCO boys.”
The fact is, had Torrence not so thoroughly dominated the tour from 2017 through 2021, when he won 43 times in 97 starts during one incredible stretch, his current winless streak would not even be a blip on the radar. It’s only been 11 races since the 40-year-old Texan last hoisted one of the NHRA’s iconic Wally trophies.
“It’s a lot more competitive,” Torrence said of the Top Fuel division. “There’s more cars that can win, and you’ve got a lot of young drivers like Justin (Ashley), Josh Hart, and Austin Prock who can chop down the Christmas Tree. But, trust me, these CAPCO boys haven’t forgotten how to win, and I may not be a youngster anymore, but I can still drive a little.”
HOME FIELD ADVANTAGE - For Mike McIntire Jr., Summit Motorsports Park is home.
Hailing from a little over an hour away in Chesterland, Ohio, McIntire got his license at the northern Ohio facility and enjoys each and every opportunity he has to compete at the famed racetrack that he grew up attending as a kid.
This weekend, however, is a little more impactful for the second-generation racer. While McIntire has turned plenty of laps at the facility, never has his car been this competitive entering the Summit Racing Equipment Nationals, and it has him even more excited about the possibilities that lie before him.
“The car has been good,” McIntire shared. “The guys have been doing everything right. Tony (Shortall) has been doing a great job. We have just been going down the racetrack and been consistent, and that is key for a team like us. We just want to go A to B down the track and get the data. We don’t run a lot, so we need to make the most of the runs that we do get.”
So far in 2023, the journeyman racer has made three starts on the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series tour, qualifying in ninth in his past two starts and recording a number of career-best passes. He made the semifinal quartet at the Four-Wide Nationals at Charlotte and came painstakingly close to upsetting John Force in Chicago.
And while races against the Forces, Matt Hagans, and the Robert Hights of the world at one point were enough to shake his game, McIntire feels more and more confident behind the wheel. And at this point, he feels he can compete with anyone he lines up against.
“When you qualify well, you feel like you can take down anyone, and you don’t feel like you are the underdog when you pull up to the line,” McIntire said. “(Lining up against some drivers) used to be intimidating the first couple of years where I am out here like, ‘Oh my gosh, I am running John Force or Ron Capps.’ Now, it is just another run, especially when the car is running good. You get a lot of confidence, and you are running the racetrack more than the guy in the other lane.”
While McIntire can feel his confidence growing with each pass, he admits that the butterflies return each time he lines up at Summit Motorsports Park. So what would it mean to have some success this weekend?
“It would mean the world,” McIntire said. “It would be great to do really well anywhere, but here it would be unreal. This place is so special. I got my license here when we first started this deal. It is so close to home, and we have a lot of family and friends out there. Words cannot describe how cool it would be to do well here.”
UNDER THE RADAR - You wouldn’t think that a driver with two runner-up finishes and a top-five standing in the championship in a premier class like Funny Car on the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series tour would be considered flying under the radar, but that is precisely where Alexis DeJoria lives.
DeJoria has been steady in qualifying behind the wheel of her Bandero Premium Tequila Toyota GR Supra Funny Car and has raced to runner-up finishes at Charlotte and again two weeks ago in Bristol. Still, she hasn’t truly been talked about as part of the championship conversation.
It may be time for that to change.
While DeJoria was disappointed that she couldn’t finish such a strong weekend at the Tennessee track with a win - losing in the final to current points leader Ron Capps - she is confident in her team and where they are heading.
“Our Bandero GR Supra team is coming off of some good momentum from Bristol,” DeJoria said. “We raced Ron Capps in the final, and we were so close to getting it done. We’ve consistently qualified well this year and have already gone to two final rounds. With the exception of Epping, we haven’t dropped out of the top five in points all year, and even when we did dip below fifth, we immediately rebounded in Bristol. I can tell we’re on the brink; I know we’ll get a win soon.”
DeJoria’s last win came at Bristol in 2021.
A win at the NHRA Summit Racing Equipment Nationals would be her first official win at the Norwalk, Ohio-based facility, but it wouldn’t technically be her first win at the track. In fact, DeJoria is the last official Funny Car competitor to race to a victory at Summit Motorsports Park, collecting a win at the annual Norwalk Night Under Fire exhibition match race last fall over John Force.
On Friday, DeJoria put herself in a prime position to see success this weekend with the second quickest time in the Funny Car class behind Ron Capps. Her 3.901-second pass at 331.20 mph was just three-thousandths of a second off of Capps’ time, and if she remains in this spot, it will be her fourth time starting in the second position this season.
CAR GO BOOM - Alex Laughlin has experienced several firsts in his transition from Pro Stock to Funny Car, but on Friday, he experienced a new moment.
After drifting out of the groove early and reeling it in, Laughlin saw his engine let go just shy of the finish line giving him, what he referred to, as his first official “Funny Car blow up.”
“I knew I should have lifted,” Laughlin said. “I stayed in it a half-second too long and just blew it up.”
Despite the mishap, Laughlin placed his Funny Car 10th on the ladder with a 4.225-second lap.
GETTING CLOSER - Brittany Force would love to visit victory lane this weekend.
Not only would it be her first win of the 2023 season, but it would also be her first win ever at Summit Motorsports Park, a facility synonymous with her father, John Force, and the entire Force family. While collectively, only team patriarch John has won at Norwalk, a victory coming way back in 2014, Brittany is confident that she is not that far off from adding her name to that list.
One year ago, Force set the track record en route to qualifying first in her Monster Energy / Fav-R-Pac Chevrolet dragster but fell out of contention in the semifinals.
“This team is staying positive; we are narrowing in on this car and its performance,” Force said. “In the past at Summit Motorsports Park, we’ve qualified well, and last year we were No. 1, set the track record and had a semifinal exit. Our history gives us some good data to pull from and get set up for the weekend.”
Despite not having raised a Wally at the Summit Racing Equipment Nationals, Force has succeeded in the event. In her last six starts at the event, she qualified her Monster Energy machine in the top three with No. 1s in 2019 and 2022, when she set the current track record at 3.666 seconds. Her best finish was a runner-up in 2021.
On Friday, her pass of 3.709 at 329.75 mph was only good enough for sixth.
SHAKING THINGS UP - The Cuadra camp is making some changes this weekend, starting with patriarch Fernando Cuadra Sr. who will be driving his son David Cuadra’s Corral Boots Mustang. D. Cuadra is returning to his sportsman roots for this event as he vies for the title in Top Sportsman.
“I’m going to be behind the wheel of David’s Pro Stock car this weekend as we seek to find ways to improve our program,” said the eldest member of the Cuadra family. “It’s great to be on the Elite team and have opportunities like this to try new things.”
Meanwhile, Fernando Cuadra Jr. will be behind the wheel of Elite Motorsports owner Richard Freeman’s red Ford Mustang built by RJ Race Cars. The crew is working on a few different combinations with power and weight. Changing cars will allow for more flexibility as they determine what will work best for these powerful machines.
“I’m swapping race cars to try something,” Fernando Jr. said. “Richard Freeman gave me the opportunity to run his Rick Jones Mustang just to try to mimic something from Cristian’s car that is proven to be really fast, so I’m really excited to always something to go faster.”
Cristian Cuadra, who leads the way in the Cuadra family with two semifinal appearances and a top 10 ranking, will remain in his original car, which has been performing well this season.
MORRISON PARTNERS WITH CLEVELAND CLINIC – Joe Morrison, who’ll make his official switch from Top Fuel to Funny Car later this season, has partnered with Cleveland Clinic to bring his Right2Breathe foundation’s Lung Health Expo this weekend to Summit Racing Equipment Motorsports Park.
Morrison’s Right2Breathe “Put Your Lungs on the Dyno” Project will provide onsite lung health screening and education to fans who visit the Manufacturers Midway.
“I’m excited to be here in Norwalk with Right2Breathe and our new partner, Cleveland Clinic. To be working with one of the best lung centers in the country at the Summit Racing Equipment Nationals provides a great opportunity for the fans to have some fun with our ‘Put Your Lungs on the Dyno’ campaign and check their lungs performance,” Morrison said.
“Even though several rain delays have prevented me from finishing my Funny Car license,” he said, “I am still working hard to honor my dad’s legacy and continue serving race fans with Right2Breathe. I’ll be on track before the season is over. In the meantime, fans can come to see us in the Midway.”
FLYING BLIND - Several drivers reported having trouble seeing during their one and only hit at the track Friday evening.
Following an evening of rain and humid conditions, several drivers reported foggy visors and other challenges during their passes under the lights, including 18-time race winner Spencer Massey.
Massey drove his machine to a 3.764-second pass at 322.96 mph but was quick to share on the top end just how much of a challenge that run actually was.
“It is humid out there, and my visor fogged up, but usually the wind blows it off,” Massey said. “This time, it didn’t. I couldn’t see anything and going that fast and not being able to see isn’t ideal.”
Massey’s pass on Friday was just outside the top half of the field, placing him ninth on the ladder.