2023 NHRA THUNDER VALLEY NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
THE TEN: THUNDER VALLEY NATIONALS EDITION
Competition Plus’ Water-Cooler Topics From The NHRA's Thunder Valley Nationals in Bristol, Tenn.
1. The Three-Ring Circus Was A Hit - The Thunder Valley Nationals had to share its thunder with the New England Nationals, combining the rained-out Epping, N.H., event with the regularly scheduled one at Bristol, Tenn.
Kudos to the NHRA for pulling off the three-ring circus at Bristol Dragway, as the Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge/NHRA Challenges were added to the show. But Mother Nature deserves another huge “Boo!” for Sunday’s early rain delay during eliminations.
Under the Bristol Big Top (or is it “Rocky Top”?), here were some of the more entertaining acts:
Justin Ashley wins his third and fourth Top Fuel events this year, as well as the Mission Foods Challenge for the third time.
“I think I might need a nap. It has been a long week to get to this race,” said Ashley. “I feel so, so grateful and so, so happy. Anytime there is an opportunity to win, it is special – but when you have the opportunity to win three races in one weekend, especially at a historic facility like Bristol, it just makes it that much more special.”
His Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge victory yielded $10,000 and three prized Countdown bonus points. That total payout eclipsed Josh Hart’s $80,000 Pep Boys All-Star Call-Out haul from back in March at Gainesville, Fla., as the season’s biggest jackpot.
Ashley rocketed from fourth place to first, regaining the points lead he earned after winning in April at Pomona. Ashley also won the March event at Phoenix.
Incidentally, Top Fuel’s Tony Schumacher had been the most recent racer to win two Wally statues in the same weekend – and his crew chief that day in September 2014, at Dallas, was Mike Green, now Ashley’s tuner. (Green’s assistant, Tommy DeLago, said immediately afterward of Green, “He’s a bad mo-fo, ain’t he?”)
2. An emotional Bob Tasca III wins in Funny Car at his “home-track” race – 850 miles to the south of it - They both were seeking their first victory of the season, and Rhode Island native Bob Tasca III denied 155-time winner John Force in Saturday’s make-up from rain-postponed New England Nationals. He also claimed the winner’s $10,000 and three Countdown bonus points in the simultaneous Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge.
“I would have gone to Alaska to get this trophy,” Tasca said. “It's a win that I've always dreamed about, winning at a racetrack I grew up at. It's the first track I ever went down. But we just felt like this whole season was building for us. I’m just so impressed with [crew chiefs] Todd Okuhara and Aaron Brooks and the team.
“I went up to Force before I got in the car, and I said, ‘Force, I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for you.’ To race John Force in the finals, at his age  to do what he does out here, it'll never be done by anybody. I have so much respect for John. There's no one I get up for like that. If I have to win a race in the final round and have John Force alongside me for the New England Nationals trophy, it's going to be a long time before I forget that win.” Tasca was making his 27th final. It was Force’s 265th.
3. Erica Enders beginning to get back in her winning groove - As cathartic as it was Friday, before racing started, to grind on her couch-potato, Cheetos-chomping, “Internet idiot” critics, winning the Thunder Valley Nationals Pro Stock final Sunday afternoon, for victory No. 44 overall and the first of this season, was even more so.
The five-time and reigning champion claimed her first No. 1 qualifying performance of the season and 30th of her career Saturday. She said, “We don't really have to say anything. Our scoreboard will do the talking, as it always has in the past. We’ve made big strides in the right direction for our whole organization.” Indeed, her Elite Motorsports team swept the top three qualifying positions, and teammate Aaron Stanfield won Saturday in the NHRA Pro Stock Challenge over class steamroller Dallas Glenn in the final. He gained cash for Elite Motorsports and precious Countdown points that he’ll receive once the regular season ends.
“I didn’t forget how to drive. Jake Hairston and Kyle Bates didn’t forget how to build horsepower. Richard Freeman did not forget how to run a team,” Enders said with the confident authority that had been waiting to show up all season. “Pro Stock has been this way for the 20 years I’ve been driving and the 20 years prior that I watched. The pendulum swings, and when it’s not swinging in your direction, it’s extremely painful. But it always comes back.”
So does Enders, who said, “It’s peaks and valleys. What we’ve been through together would tear most teams apart. And it’s what’s so coveted about our team. You can’t buy what we have,” she said.
Before qualifying started, she said, “I’m not worried. I’m really not. I have full confidence that everything will turn around. And if it doesn’t, it’s not going to change my life. We’re not curing cancer. This isn’t the end-all, be-all.” She said Sunday as she admired her trophy that it means “more than most people will understand.”
As for those anonymous know-it-alls, Enders said Friday, “I’ve deleted all my social-media apps off my phone because I want to strangle idiots on the Internet that have no clue what they’re talking about. They sit on their couch and eat Cheetos and they watch us race, and they think they can be a Monday-morning quarterback when we’re doing all that we can. At the same time, it’s part of living in a fishbowl, right? The human aspect is it’s not always easy. It sucks to suck. It’s awful, because you spend the same amount of money and work just as hard. Some mornings you wake up and have to talk yourself into it.”
She’s not having that problem now.
4. It turns out that Gaige Herrera really is beatable - Steve Johnson laughed after racing his way into the final round against Vance & Hines juggernaut Gaige Herrera and said, “You need a lot more than motivation to beat Gaige. We all know he has an awesome bike, but we do, too.”
He said, “I said I was going to throw the kitchen sink at it,” he said of his effort to be the first to stop the dominating young Mission Foods Suzuki phenom – “but we didn’t have a kitchen sink.”
Whatever Johnson had, it was enough Sunday. And it didn’t hurt that Herrera made one of his rare mistakes in that fourth final-round appearance of the season, jumping off the starting line .011 of a second too early and disqualifying himself.
Johnson, who entered the weekend with a 2-3 race-day record, capitalized for his 12th triumph in 31 final rounds.
5. Snap-on Tools’ Nick Pinchuk wows with speech - The 75-year-old Chairman and CEO of the American-proud tool company gave a rousing patriotic pep talk Saturday that was worthy of any U.S. Presidential campaign.
“I travel all over the world, and I just got back from London. And I can say this: That this is the greatest country in the world. Historians will tell you that it is because we know how to create things – from sea to shining sea, from the very beginning,” Pinchuk said in an interview with track announcer Joe Castello.
“And if you want further evidence of this, you can go back to the pandemic ... when one-third of America was sheltering in place but the people of work were standing firm, keeping society from disintegrating. Mechanics and factory workers and truck drivers, they are the soul of America. They were yesterday. They are today. And they will be tomorrow. And what better place to show it off than right here?”
He said, “I have to thank the NHRA for giving us the opportunity to send this message to the nation, because it’s an important one.”
Snap-on Tools, a longtime supporter of Funny Car two-time champion Cruz Pedregon, is celebrating its 100th year in business. He didn’t hesitate to answer when asked to tell the secret of the firm’s longevity.
“We know who we are,” Pinchuk said. “We help the people of work, enable them to do the most difficult tasks. We put out a product they can be proud of and display to the world that they know they are professionals. And we keep doing that over and over again. We are a people who know we make a difference. We keep doing that, and it’s the secret to 100 years. And it’ll be the secret to 200 years.”
Competition Plus quoted Pinchuk as saying in a Q&A session for the crowd, “There’s no more American sport than NHRA. It’s got the qualities: Power, ingenuity, teamwork, and other things that have made America great. So we invest in this [sport]. Power’s rolling down the strip – 11,000 horsepower.
“You can go in the pits, and you can see ingenuity and teamwork with Snap-on Tools, fixing and rebuilding engines. And we enable courage by investing 27 years with Cruz Pedregon, one of the most courageous drivers. We feel really privileged to be here,” he said. “I encourage everybody to come out here every time they get near an NHRA event, because it’s a great event. I wouldn’t miss it.”
Snap-on Tools’ Fixers just might be the ones Pedregon calls after he experienced trouble on his first-round burnout. What he called a “high-speed wobble” made his car lurch to the right immediately. After he shut the car off and it was pushed off the line, Pedregon was seen shaking his hands, indicating he might have been hurt a bit. He covered his eyes and shut his visor, as well. Later Pedregon said that the car’s unexpected move “ripped” the steering wheel from his hands and he worried for a minute or two about injured fingers. He said he thought about not only himself but also opponent Alexis DeJoria and decided to cut off the engine for safety’s sake.
6. Ron Capps becomes Bristol Dragway’s No. 1 pro winner - It would be no surprise if Bristol Dragway honored Ron Capps as a Legend of Thunder Valley when the Camping World Drag Racing Series comes back to this historic East Tennessee dragstrip. He would have earned it.
The second-year Funny Car team owner secured his second straight and seventh overall victory here with his 30-foot winning margin against Alexis DeJoria. This year’s Wally trophy goes with the ones from here from the 2001, 2006, 2012, 2017, 2018, and 2022 events.
Borrowing a line from Top Fuel’s Bristol-loving Mike Salinas, Capps said in his post-race celebration that he ought to buy a home in the area because “this place loves me.”
7. STRUT = Steve Torrence Racing with Undeniable Temerity - Four-time Top Fuel champion Steve Torrence is racing with confidence again. He has led the standings for much of the season, has started in the top half of the field at every race and had two runner-up finishes and final-quad appearances at the two four-wide events. But now that seven races are in hand, Torrence approaches his 300th start (likely at the end of the Western Swing, at Denver) with renewed chutzpah. This weekend he said, “We’ve got to establish that dominance we once had. We let it slip. We let these guys catch their breath, and we’re here to choke ‘em now.” Torrence lost Sunday in Round 2 to Doug Kalitta.
“It was just a matter of time before Doug started making noise,” Torrence said. “I just wish he hadn’t made it against us. The big thing is we’ve got our race car back. We qualified solid (third, at 3.753 seconds on the 1,000-foot course), we were the only car in the [3.]60s, and in that second round, we ran exactly what we wanted to run. We thought it would be good enough.”
He said, “Losing the point lead to Justin? I’ve got to admit, that stung a little bit. But like I’ve said before, the only time it’s really important to be No. 1 is in November after the last run at the In-N-Out Finals. We’ll just keep doing what we do.”
9. Tony Schumacher follows father into Legends of Thunder Valley hall of fame - Tony Schumacher, the most successful Top Fuel driver in NHRA history, became the 22nd inductee into Bristol Dragway’s Legends of Thunder Valley, the historic track’s official hall of fame, Saturday. Six of his 86 victories have come at this racetrack in the hills of east Tennessee. He also advanced to the finals of Saturday’s conclusion of the rain-delayed New England Nationals.
“Whenever that U.S. Army dragster pulled into the staging lanes at Bristol Dragway, you had a pretty good feeling that it was going to win,” said Jerry Caldwell, president and general manager of Bristol Motor Speedway & Dragway. “Tony Schumacher was dominating at Thunder Valley in the 2000s, and his success here mirrored his success on the NHRA national circuit as he raced to 86 career victories and eight championship[s]. We are so pleased to induct him this weekend, and for all of his great accomplishments here, he is well-deserving of the honor to be forever known as a Legend of Thunder Valley.”
Schumacher is only the third member to be inducted while he is still an active racer, joining 2016 inductee John Force and 2007 honoree Rickie Smith. Both Force and Smith competed here this weekend.
“I just love this track. I’ve always loved racing here,” Schumacher said. “This recognition means a lot. It’s the first hall of fame for me. This is a great track and such a beautiful facility, and I love the people here. It’s also a challenging track. You have to be on your game to race here with the changing weather conditions.
“When you look up there and see all the great names up there [on the Legends of Thunder Valley sign above the grandstands], it’s such an honor to join them. Bristol has always been a great racetrack for me, and I’ve had great success and won here with several different crew chiefs. I’ve been blessed to have great people behind me, and that’s what makes it all go.”
Toyota dominates in the nitro ranks Sunday, fielding both Top Fuel finalists and both Funny Car finalists
10. Justin Ashley’s historic Top Fuel double-up as both the New England Nationals on Saturday and Thunder Valley Nationals on Sunday highlighted the all-Toyota nitro showdowns. - Ashley defeated Toyota partner Antron Brown, who scored his 800th career round-win Sunday. Brown is the sixth driver in NHRA history to earn 800 elimination-round victories.
In the Funny Car class, Ron Capps celebrated the anniversary of his first Toyota triumph by taking his Toyota Gazoo Racing Supra back to the Bristol Dragway winners circle for the second consecutive and seventh total time in his career. In notching his 74th Funny Car victory, Capps defeated fellow Toyota Supra driver Alexis DeJoria in the final round.
Ashley’s feat Sunday marked Toyota’s 199th victory in the NHRA. So it has a chance to hit the No. 200 milestone at the next race, at Norwalk, Ohio.
Ashley said his gratitude for the Toyota support “is very, very deep – the talent pool that we have. I am so grateful that we have Toyota Gazoo Racing North America and Slugger [Labbe] and Paul [Flynn] and all of the people from that team that not only provide us with the data and information that we need, but treat us like family. When you are part of Toyota Racing, you are part of the Toyota family, and we all have each other and we all work together. Going into that final round, against our Toyota teammate, and knowing, no matter what happened in front of us it was going to be a Toyota double-up and we are inching closer to a 200th win for Toyota is really amazing. It speaks volumes on Toyota – to be able to put all of the time, energy, effort, and commitment that have into the sport of NHRA drag racing – really is beyond measure.”
SUNDAY NOTEBOOK - AND YOUR WINNERS ARE...
THIS IS MY HOUSE - It's hard to not be sentimental about a place where you have more professional wins than any other drag racer.
On Sunday afternoon, Ron Capps surpassed Tony Schumacher as the winningest driver at Bristol Dragway during the sanest day at the double-event NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals, the seventh stop on the 2023 NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series. Despite a two-hour rain delay, Capps found his groove all day, stopping Alexis DeJoria in the final round to pick up his seventh win at the picturesque racing facility carved out of the mountains of east Tennessee.
Capps drove his NAPA Auto Parts Toyota to a 3.998-second elapsed time at 325 miles per hour to scoop up his first win of the season and 74th of his career.
"Last year, we were able to give the Toyota GR Supra its first win here in Bristol," Capps said. "Needless to say, I was stoked when I pulled up for the finals, and there were four [Team] Toyota cars in the lanes. It's not surprising when you see all the effort they put into our drag racing out here with tech support.
"But it's our whole team, from the crew to the public relations to the social media, that makes it all work. And Bristol is a tough track to win at.
This is probably the most demanding racetrack there is to drive in a Funny Car. I think anybody will tell you that drives one. So I probably cost us a couple of qualifying runs. I just couldn't hang on to the car and keep it in the middle. And thankfully, I got my act together on Sunday, and (crew chief Dean Antonelli) 'Guido' was able to lay it down."
Capps' road to the winner's circle included victories over Dave Richards, 16-time champion John Force, and a surging Chad Green. He got quicker each round, with the quickest, a 3.918, in the semi-finals.
"There's no way of explaining when you get a certain mojo at a time," Capps said. "I've won here with different crew chiefs, different sponsors, different owners, so I can't really pinpoint it. I just know the very first year we ever came here; I did a golf tournament. I met a bunch of people that day that were local Chamber of Commerce. We did a press conference, and people I still talk to today. I met a chiropractor. My back was messed up. He adjusted me. Then I ate dinner at their house that night. They invited me to their house. From the get-go, it's been this love affair with this area."
Capps said he's had a special technique he follows when he gets on a roll, as he did on Sunday.
"I just try not to mess up," Capps admitted. "We got a great race car. Again, just Guido kind of getting in his zone. And again, this is one of the most difficult racetracks, not just as a driver but to tune. It's got a lot of character. This is one of the first tracks that built a place for the fans, and in doing so, it created these tons of bumps, and they've had to come in and (grind) it. But what's cool about it is we go to a lot of tracks, we just go out, and it's just a thousand feet or a quarter-mile of two lanes, and you go out, and you throw down the best you can with the weather you can, whatever the conditions are, and that's it.
"This place has so much character. I mean, you really got to adjust for it. It brings out the best in everybody on the team."
Apparently, it also brings out the best in his opponents when they run him in trying to find an edge. DeJoria went in and deep-staged, something Capps recognized immediately as out of character for DeJoria.
"She came over and apologized right away, but I gave her a little bit of time because I knew I've done that, and it's crazy," Capps said. "So I wanted to make sure it was a good race by both teams. And thank God I got the jump because they were right there."
Capps' Bristol victory represented Toyota win No. 198, and with team driver Justin Ashley grabbing No. 199 in Top Fuel on Sunday , the milestone 200th win could come with the Funny Car winner in two weeks at Norwalk, Ohio.
Additionally, Capps is the points leader after wresting the upper hand from Hagan.
"That's huge," Capps said. "It's a long year. It's great. And it's great for NAPA Monday morning to look at Competition Plus or any of our race sites, and when we send them a link and see that we're points leaders, that's great. But it doesn't matter until I can tell you Sunday at Pomona (at the NHRA In-and-Out Burger Finals); I can finally say that we won it on Sunday. We just try to get through wins and just get our consistency down. But this is huge. Great win."
WHOLE NOTHER LEVEL - Winning a race is challenging enough, but winning three in the same weekend means you are on a whole 'nother level, as they say in eastern Tennessee.
In case anyone hasn't noticed, Justin Ashley is on a whole 'nother level.
In one fell swoop, the Phillips Connect driver successfully defended his NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals title by beating tech teammate Antron Brown. He added a #2Fast2Tasty Shootout title and the rain-delayed New England Nationals crown for good measure.
Ashley's win came with a run of 3.718 seconds at a Bristol Dragway track record 336 miles per hour.
The victory marked his fourth of the season and vaulted him into the championship points lead after eight events.
"Mission accomplished," Ashley said of his win. "It's been a fantastic weekend. It was going to be hard to do what we did at Pomona and even replicate that, but this is definitely just an incredible weekend -- certainly the best weekend of my racing career. The key word for this weekend is 'team.' It was a team effort. To be able to turn on eight win lights in a row like that in the course of one weekend is really something special.
"To leave one weekend with three different victories is amazing. Something I really didn't even know was possible. So Mike Green, Tommy DeLago, and the guys all weekend worked so hard to be able to make something happen. We came in with the objective to leave with all the wins, but it's not an easy thing to accomplish. But they got it done today."
In one weekend, Ashley also bodyslammed a previous trend where he follows a win with a first-round loss. Ashley believes while others think about it, it's as far from his thoughts as it could be.
"You just have to trust the process, and we do," Ashley explained. "I think something that's important to understand is, of course, it's a reflection on us, but how about the competition? The competition is so tough, so to be able to go and win a race and then lose the first round, sure, we want more consistency, sure, we want to do better, but the depth of the field is so tough, every round is difficult. So it's only natural to have those ebbs and flows, to have the wins, to have the first-round losses.
"It's a long year, so we trust and understand what we're doing. We know that we put a lot of work in the offseason to put ourselves in this position, and it's just great to get a good start early in the year."
At the start of the season, Ashley, who is lauded as the best leaver in the class, lamented the level of competition he planned to face this season. He never could have imagined, eight races into the season, he would be batting .500.
"I can't even put it into words," Ashley said. "That's a result of the team that we have on and off the racetrack. You're only as good as the people that you surround yourself with. And I feel comfortable in saying we have the best in the business, and I think that it showed.
"It's a long year, but four wins in only eight races is certainly an accomplishment, and it's certainly a great feeling. We don't want to get too ahead of ourselves. Very important to enjoy this one. But we know, and we understand, like you said, how good this Top Fuel field is. That's why we're really going to appreciate these wins but have a healthy understanding that we can't stay stagnant. We need to continue to get better because everyone else around us is doing the same thing."
Yeah, but as one might point out, those people aren't winning three races in a weekend. That's whole 'nother-level stuff.
BACK TO CRACKING THEM - Reports of Erica Enders’ demise were greatly exaggerated.
After the first six races of the season, Enders had a 2-6 elimination round record and was 14th in the points standings.
Those aren’t normal numbers for the five-time and reigning Pro Stock world champion.
Enders silenced her doubters Sunday at the Thunder Valley Nationals in Bristol, Tenn. Enders captured her first win of the season, clocking a 6.680-second lap at 204.08 mph in her Elite Motorsports Camaro to defeat Deric Kramer’s 6.727-second run at 197.05 mph in the finals.
The win was Enders' 44th in NHRA Pro Stock competition, and she won from the No. 1 qualifying position.
“It's super gratifying and I don't know if people truly understand what it means,” Enders said. “I mean, yes, we've won a lot of races, but to finish the year that we had last year in the fashion that we did and then to start the year as horribly as we did is a real gut check and just one of those things
that you have to battle through. My team owner (Richard Freeman) always reminds us that winning races doesn't define us, that we're winners off the racetrack, too. Even though we go through these valleys, you just have to put your head down and go to work. I said it in my top end interview, but I
want to reiterate it here is how hard my guys work, not just my Chevy Camaro, but all nine of our cars that we have. We have almost 60 people on the road full time and it's a little bit of controlled chaos, but I wouldn't take
anything for any of the guys that we have.
“They are truly amazing. They're a talent. The two guys who are working on my car this weekend, Connor has won with J.R. Todd before, but Declan is new to drag racing, so it's his first win and our first win as the new Team Red, so I could not be prouder of them and their hard work. They didn't ever get discouraged or give up. That's what it's all about is just trying to remain as positive as possible and just go to work and shut the naysayers up.”
On Sunday, Enders ousted Mason McGaha, Kyle Koretsky, Greg Anderson and Kramer in that order.
“Okay, so go to that final round and then have the reaction time you did and win on a holeshot. What does that mean for you?
“I mean, we've struggled with our race car, but I've struggled mentally as a driver as well,” Enders said. “It definitely takes a toll on you, and you
question a lot of things, and you lose your confidence and maybe a little of your swagger. I talked to my dad right before that final round. He's like, ‘Remember who you are. Just put your head down and do it. You're a five-time champ.’ So, the encouragement from him, the encouragement from my sister (Courtney), who's the ultimate hype girl ever in the history of the world, it's refreshing to know that so many people believe in me, and I just have to remember to believe in myself. Honestly, I was 21, I think, on the tree second round. I had a competition bye when Greg broke in the semis, so we threw that reaction time out.
“But I sped my pedal up a little bit and I thought that I could be 12 to 16 on the tree and we were right in there at 15. I finally did my job, and we were able to park our JHG Chevy Camaro. ... I don't know what I'm saying. I haven't done this in a while. In the winner's circle. But Jason and Nikki
Johnson are here. They've sponsored Bo all year last year. They brought us on board as well. So, this is the first Wally that we get to hand to them, and it's pretty significant.”
Enders knows all too well what it is like to go on a heater to a dry spell in the world of Pro Stock. She won world titles in 2014-15 and then didn’t win
again until 2019 and 2020 and last year.
“The last one was excruciating,” said Enders about going without a title for three years. “This one has just been slightly painful because knowing what
we had every weekend, if there were 16 cars on property, we weren't going to qualify. So that was how sucky our 2016 season was, but we were a new program. It was the year that all the rule changes came out for Pro Stock, switching from carburetors to electronic fuel injection, the rev limiter, and then we switched manufacturers on top of that. So, it took a toll on our team, and it was a two-year deal. They opted out and we opted out as well, so we went back to our Chevy power plant and went to work. It took us a couple of years to recover. We really struggled. I only won one race in 2017, but we rallied. So, the lessons are that you don't give up. It's horsepower and win lights are a really great deodorant for underlying issues.”
Enders was quick to credit her team to come all the way back reclaim championship glory.
“It just shows that what would tear most teams apart makes us stronger,” she said. “I started in 2014 with Elite Motorsports and there were eight people on my team, including myself, and now we have almost 60. I think it speaks volumes for our leadership. I think it speaks volumes for the kind of work ethic that the guys have and their never give up attitude. But it's easy when things are not great to just get down and get negative and want to quit. I'm not going to say I didn't say I was retiring 47,00,000 times this year, but I'm not, so we're good.”
Although the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis aren’t until Labor Day weekend, Enders realizes it is never too early to start marching up the standings.
Enders moved up from 14th to a tie for eighth in the points standings with Cristian Cuadra.
“It's definitely crucial, now that we're closing in on Indy,” Enders said. “It's hard to believe that we're already in the month of June, let alone getting close to the Countdown. So, we've got to go to work. I think we entered Bristol in 14th or 15th in the points position, which is the lowest ever since I drove a Ford. It's been challenging, but all you have to do is be there when it counts. That's something that my guys are tremendous at. When our backs are against the wall, they perform, I perform and we get things done, so I'm not worried.
"I said it on Friday when we qualified on the pole here, it doesn't matter until the Countdown. Now if you race all the races, you get a participation trophy and you get in the Countdown anyway, so we're solid. We'll be just fine. I wouldn't want to go to battle with anybody other than the guys that I have that stand behind me. I'm a blessed girl, but we got some work cut out for us, and we'll just keep going at it. You know how we roll.”
WE GOT NO SINK BOSS -
Gaige Herrera was unstoppable to start the 2023 NHRA season.
He won the first three races of the season from the No. 1 qualifying spot on his Suzuki and seemed on the verge of making it four in a row at the Thunder Valley Nationals in Bristol, Tenn.
But that 1.000 batting average went out the window Sunday. Herrera, in his first season riding for powerhouse Vance & Hines, saw the streak come to an end when he had a redlight start against veteran Steve Johnson in the finals.
Johnson wasn’t complaining. Johnson, who also is aboard a Suzuki, cruised to the finish line in 7.174 seconds at 158.63 mph.
“I thought there's no way,” Johnson said about defeating Herrera. “But I figured at the end of the year in the Countdown, we'd have our stuff
together and it would be right. So, I knew this was a pattern and I'm like, ‘You just write off the first part of the year to get ready for the Countdown.
Everybody knows that strategy. So, we went and had this body done. It took 12 days at Mike Mullaney'place, he used to work at Vance & Hines. Then our truck got run into the ditch and it flipped, and it got wrecked and destroyed, so it's been a nightmare. My point with J.R. Todd is he went through a heck of a deal there when he got hit and they rebuilt the car and all the testing and stuff. We didn't have the same thing. But proportionately for the dollars, we had every bit of headache and drama.”
Seeing drivers beat the odds is something Johnson is well aware of since he’s been competing in NHRA’s Pro Stock Motorcycle class when Bon Jovi's “Livin' On A Prayer,” was a No. 1 single. The year was 1987.
“I think that's what makes our sport so good, is we have such fighters in NHRA,” Johnson said. “We have such a charismatic fight in trying to win one of these trophies (a Wally). I think in the David Goliath scenario, that's what makes it so cool, is it gets done on the racetrack and you have to have four lights and your engine's got to be running to let go of the clutch or floor when you're in a fuel car. So, David and Goliath are in the Bible, but this happens right here at Bristol, and this is my new Bible right here, Bristol.”
Johnson then discussed what it's like riding the Suzuki Hayabusa with the Gen3 body.
“Well, it's well documented,” Johnson said. “The Suzuki Hayabusa Gen3 body is the newest, coolest thing in Pro Stock Motorcycle racing. It's half a million dollars to design it and build it. We got it. Suzuki wants us to have it. It's totally different. You can sit in a Camaro, and you can go sit in a Mustang and you can floor it and you could even drive it down a dragstrip. But it's so different with us because we don't have a seat, we're not strapped into it. The seat's just totally different.
“It looks the same, it's the same height. But the feel and how the motorcycle rides down the track, it's just totally different. Not to mention it's three G's trying to pull you off the back of the motorcycle. Then when you stretch out, 'cause it's aerodynamic, you can put a second rider on the back. So, I scoot back the first time and I'm like, ‘Wow, there's no backstop there.’ I scoot all the way back. So that's a big advantage. It hasn't shown up in mile per hour yet for us.
"But the first round was exciting, and second round was really exciting to beat Eddie (Krawiec), especially on a holeshot. Third round, we got lucky. But in the finals race and Gaige, he's got a really, really fast Suzuki and I was like, ‘Okay, we had a quick little meeting, what do you want to do with timing? We talked about jetting and moving the wheel and all this stuff, and we just got to throw the kitchen sink (at it).”
On Sunday, Johnson’s victory parade consisted of wins over Joey Gladstone, Krawiec, Hector Arana Jr., and then Herrera.
This was the 12th national event win for Johnson in his 481st start. He last won a national event in Houston in the spring of 2022. This was the first
Wally Johnson has won in Bristol.
In the finals, Johnson and his crew member Jock Allen did everything possible to score the upset, but they weren’t coming up with answers.
“Jock went in to get the sink and he came back, and he says, ‘We don't have one.’ So, I'm like, ‘Well, we'll just do what we can,’” Johnson said. “We did some stuff, and it wasn't probably right. I looked up and saw the red light or saw his win light and I let off because we are on a major budget, so I want to save the parts. Our engines read 14,000 rpm. So, lots of parts want to change. Want to change holes and swap around and things at 14,000 rpm. So, I wanted to give it a break. I was really happy with it. Our engine's double trouble and the rest is pretty shocking.”
Johnson also used the winning platform to address the state of the PSM class, which doesn’t share the same limelight as the Top Fuel and nitro Funny Car drivers.
“This is really random. But we had a situation in Charlotte y'all saw with almost an accident, and J.R. Todd commented on it. ‘We need parachutes
and there were some blah blah blah.’ I'm like, ‘Do y'all understand there's a Top Fuel driver commenting on Pro Stock motorcycling? You're running him under the bus?' I'm like, ‘You should love on the guy.’ I think it's the first
time in history.
“It is a constant battle for us to try to be proud of our category. But I think when you try to convey the specialty things that go on in our class and now with this body and how hard it is to really ride the motorcycle properly, it's something that you want to shout about a lot. I wish we could all swap rides for a while. I have a blast, I think, trying to drive a Pro Stock car and especially fuel cars. But gosh, I'd love to see John Force pop the clutch on
my bike. Oh my gosh, it would be awesome. There are some drivers (who would) do really, really good. Obviously, Antron (Brown) did.”
Johnson knows winning in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class with the powerful Vance & Hines and Matt Smith Racing isn’t easy, but he welcomes the challenge.
“Everybody knows that the Vance & Hines bikes (are) fast, and I think everybody knows who can run good,” Johgnson said. “We just need a little
bit more resources. Again, $25,000 for a body, for our team, there's a lot of things we would've maybe rather bought. But another $10,000 to have it wrapped and mounted. It's a lot of money. So, you don't expect any of this stuff. That's why I think that the sport's so fun because there is the David and Goliath. That's what's so cool about racing is you show up and you just never know what can happen. Today, we're living proof of that.”
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK - FINISHING UP EPPING, TRYING TO AVOID ANOTHER ONE ON SUNDAY
NATURE IS A MOTHER - NHRA officials announced Saturday afternoon that final eliminations have been moved up by two hours to run at 10 AM because of an unfavorable Sunday forecast. The Lucas Oil Drag Racing categories will run on Saturday evening to completion.
ROAD TRIPPIN WITH FORCE - John Force’s crew might be lobbying for hazard pay. Or the next time the 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion decides he wants to ride in the rig from race to race, they might pool their paychecks and buy the boss a plane ticket.
Daughter Brittany already had a ticket to fly into Bristol’s Tri-Cities airport, and when Force did his searching for a ticket, the only option available was a $1,500 first-class seat.
“I wasn’t going to pay that,” Force said. “I won’t fly first class unless it’s a free upgrade.”
Force, a former truck driver, decided to be one of the boys and climb into the truck he purchased but rarely ever rode in.
“I got in the 18-wheeler with the guys and we took off,” Force said, grinning ear to ear. “We had a ball. I got to drive a little bit, not much. But it was fun being out there. But what it does it gets my mind right. When you’re mad at yourself for the way you ran the last race, and then all the change of everything happening, I just changed mentally, but the truck got me back to why I came.
Once the team arrived at the track, even more so than usual, Force was being Force.
“I love coming into this facility. I came in, in my 18-wheeler; this is the truth. We went down the other end, we had to dump the sewers, and we had to water the tanks. And I’m with two of my guys.”
Then it hit Force, “I didn’t get a rental car because I rode down with them,” Force said. “Now Brittany’s stuck with driving me around. She hates it. Okay, it’s painful. But when I was done, we were done, and we got our parking, and they’d go, ‘Force, how you getting back?’
“I said, ‘I never thought about it. How are you guys getting back?”
“And we’re stranded. So we called our guys, and they were two hours out.”
Of all knights in shining armor, NHRA’s Ned Walliser came to Force’s rescue by accident.
“He had his motorcoach out here with his wife and goes, ‘What are you doing out here in the middle of the night?’
“I said, ‘I’ll buy you guys dinner if you’ll get us home to our hotel.”
Force got his ride and fed them in return. That might have been the second-best road trip save he’s made in his career.
There was the one time Force drove the team’s truck back in the day, long before he was famous, and took a wrong turn in Texas, ending up in Mexico, and needed to write a check from a closed bank account to gain his freedom from a band of banditos.
The smooth-talking Force has talked the banditos into thinking he was their long-lost friend, and the way interacts with race fans leaves them with the same feeling.
“As long as they’re cheering, I’ll be here,” Force proclaimed. “When they quit liking me, time for me to go home. Could be getting close.”
NAH, I’M GOOD - A little over 10 years ago, Erica Enders was asked if she’d one day consider racing NASCAR. Without hesitation, Enders responded, “Nah, I’m good.”
Enders and her younger sister Courtney were in St. Louis recently at the NASCAR race.
“I told my sister, I was like, ‘Man, I wish I would have learned to turn left,’” Enders admitted. “That’s hindsight, I guess. But watching what they do is so extremely cool and fun and exciting. We kind of went there to do some work, but we went and put our fan hats on as well, and we walked around the midway and looked at merchandise trailers to see what we can do with our stuff to make it better.
“NASCAR does a tremendous job with their fans, so it was pretty cool to see. But I’m a drag racer. I’m good at it because I’ve done it my whole life, so I think they’re good at it because they started turning when they were, like, five, so I don’t think I could go over there and be good.”
So exactly how does Enders rate herself as a racing fan?
“We just walked around,” Enders said. “It was really hot in St. Louis, so we did do a little shopping. It was fun. We had a really great time. And she had some friends that are on a couple of teams out there, so we were able to sit by the pit boxes and watch the race from there and met some really cool people. I had a great time. I really did.”
THE TWO-EDGED SWORD OF DOUBLE EVENTS - Racing a national event while simultaneously qualifying can provide both an advantage and a disadvantage.
Robert Hight addressed the procedure where completing the Epping race trumped qualifying procedures where competitors must alternate lanes.
“Lane choice is always important, so that’s a big deal,” Hight said. “I can also see where it could be a disadvantage because I could stay in the right lane all through today and tomorrow, which I did today. So for three more runs tomorrow, I could stay in the right lane. And then let’s say I lose lane choice, you win first round on Sunday, and I lose lane choice.
“Well, now I have no data in the left lane at all. John’s made a couple of runs. We look at his data and kind of just see the lay of the track. We have different setups, but I can see where it’s an advantage, but it also could be a disadvantage. That’s why you shallow stage and do your best to keep lane choice all the time.”
Hight will go into Sunday’s final eliminations as the No. 1 qualifier on the strength of Friday’s 3.938 at 321.35. This marks his second No. 1 spot this season and 79th in his career. Hight will take on Alex Laughlin to open eliminations aiming for his second career win at Bristol Dragway.
“My team has a pretty good handle on all the conditions. We’ve raced a lot of different conditions, and we have a lot of data to look at,” Hight said. “We do have a new combination, and we’re trying to get through that, but if we get the cylinder dropping fixed, this thing will have three-second runs all day tomorrow. That’s probably what it’s going to take to win, especially first round.
“Tomorrow is a new day, we’re starting from a good spot, we’re back with Cornwell for tomorrow, and we need to get them their first win.
WHEN GETTING THERE IS HALF THE FUN - The Tony Stewart Racing tech trailer had issues driving from Epping to Bristol.
Top Fuel driver Leah Pruett revealed the unpublicized situation Saturday afternoon following her first No. 1 qualifying effort of 2023.
“This weekend has definitely been an extra dose of challenge,” Pruett said. “We’ve had our tech trailer almost burned to the ground coming here from Epping and so our guys have had long nights getting into the hotel at six, seven a.m. from repair work and then of course the challenges that we had this weekend. So advancing the schedule on Sunday isn’t something we’re totally new to, but taking care of our bodies and our parts is a big deal."
Pruett enjoyed her first No. 1 qualifier of the season for Tony Stewart Racing, as her run of 3.745 at 322.42 in her 11,000-horsepower Rush Truck Centers dragster from Friday easily stood up Saturday. It’s also the 14th career No. 1 spot for Pruett, who will open eliminations against Spencer Massey. Pruett has been solid for the bulk of the 2023 season, but she will be looking for her first win of the season and first victory at Bristol Dragway on Sunday.
“This No. 1 is just a testament to the consistency that this team has had all season long. It's the culmination of our performance that has led up to this,” Pruett said. “There is nothing like racing on Sunday and racing in Thunder Valley. We got the highs and the lows and the emotions of racing in qualifying. You get the echo of the cars here, and hopefully, we echo our performance of qualifying No. 1 and bring that into raceday all day. I'm eager. It's going to be an early morning for all, but the fans will have a good long day of watching cars.”
ASHLEY RULES THE ROOST - Justin Ashley, piloting his Maynard Ashley Racing Phillips Connect Toyota Top Fuel dragster, defeated Tony Schumacher on a holeshot in an all-JCM Racing final to win the New England Nationals Saturday.
Ashley clocked a 3.846-second elapsed time at 324.12 while Schumacher, an eight-time world champion, posted a quicker 3.835-second lap at 323.66 mph.
This was Ashley’s eighth career NHRA Top Fuel national event win and his third of the season. He also was victorious in Phoenix and Pomona, Calif.
By defeating Schumacher, he also won the bonus race within the race, the Mission #2Fast2Tasty Challenge.
“Oh, it’s so special. I mean, every race is special when you go into the weekend knowing you have an opportunity to win,” Ashley said. “But coming into the weekend knowing that we have three opportunities to win and having taken care of two of them already makes it just so significant. It’s just a testament to the group that we have. Even second round (he won a pedal-fest against Brittany Force), we went out there and blew some stuff up just trying to get a win. And they came back, (in a) short period of time, turned it around. It was really just a testament to the whole group that we have. We have our work cut out for us (Sunday); there’s no doubt about it. But for tonight, we’re going to enjoy this one.”
Ashley qualified No. 4 for the Bristol race – the Thunder Valley Nationals – with a 3.755 elapsed time at 327.74 mph and will meet Doug Foley in round one. Eliminations begin at 10 a.m. EDT.
“I think it’s the work that we put in during the offseason,” said Ashley, who arrived this weekend fourth in the points standings. “We made sure that coming into the season. ... We knew that the competition was going to step up. It was tough last year, but we knew it was going to be even better this year. So, the guys did what they needed to do. They found ways to improve, found ways to get better. So, I think that consistency is really a result of the work that was put in in the offseason from Dustin Davis to Mike Green and Tommy DeLago and all the guys.”
A year ago, Ashley had a shot at winning his first Top Fuel world championship in the last race of the season in Pomona but came up short, placing fourth in the points standings for the second straight season.
“I mean, there’s part of that, that, yeah, it’s different,” Ashley said about getting less than 24 hours to celebrate his two wins Saturday. “But part of that’s fun, too. It’s just a great opportunity to be able to come back out and try and turn on four win lights again (Sunday).
“I mean, look, it’s about focus. It’s about enjoying this one, but it’s a very quick turnaround. As soon as we leave the track, the focus then shifts to (Sunday) immediately. It is a little bit of a funny feeling. We’ve won once before on a Saturday years ago in Indianapolis, so it’s kind of the same deal. I think we’re just going to learn from that and make sure all our attention is on (Sunday).”
This was a historic win for Ashley since the Epping Wally was his first since joining forces with Joe and Cathi Maynard.
“On the track, the way we operate stays the same,” Ashley said. “We’ve been doing such a great job, and really where the benefits come in a number of different ways is off the track, expanding business-to-business opportunities and resources. So, yeah, it makes it really special. Our first win for Maynard Ashley Racing and Joe and Cathi. It really is special. Just grateful for the opportunity to be able to partner with them. It’s definitely very, very meaningful for our program.”
Since making his Top Fuel debut at the Charlotte, N.C., fall race in 2019, one thing that has been a constant for Ashley is his stellar reaction times. But Ashley said there’s no secret formula for his prowess at the starting line.
“I wish I knew the answer for you,” he said. “Honestly, it’s just a matter of — for me — staying focused, staying in my routine, and trying to do the same thing each and every time. Not just in the car but outside the race car, too, in terms of preparation for the race, making sure that I’m eating the right things, training the right way. I think all those things add up. But truthfully, it’s irrelevant if we don’t have the car that we have. It’s a team effort. While the reaction times are great, if the car doesn’t react quickly, it doesn’t matter. If the car doesn’t go up and down the racetrack like it does, it doesn’t matter. It’s something that I’m proud of and something that I focused on. Ultimately, it’s a team game, and I think whether it’s a win on a holeshot, whether it’s a win on a holeshot, a win’s a win any way they come.”
The impressive thing about Ashley’s victory Saturday was that he beat multiple world champions in Brittany Force, Steve Torrence and Schumacher.
“I think it’s an honor just to be able to race against some of these champions and some of these competitors,” Ashley said. “I think during the race day, there’s no time to focus on any of that. Our Phillips Connect team is just focused on being the best version of ourselves that we can be, and I think that’s why we found success. But yeah, afterwards, I have a tremendous, tremendous amount of respect for Brittany, for Steve, for Tony, and all the guys and girls that we race. It’s nice to be able to look back and say, ‘Man, it’s an honor to be able to compete against those people.’ But once race day’s there, once it’s race day mode, all that stuff goes away.”
#2FAST2UNBEATABLE - They all have tried.
It was Hector Arana Jr.’s turn Saturday during the Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol, Tenn.
But Arana and none of the other NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle challengers so far have been able to derail Gaige Herrera’s march toward a Camping World Drag Racing Series championship.
Arana clocked a 6.846-second pass at 198.64 mph on the GETTRX Buell that was three-thousandths of a second quicker and almost four miles an hour faster than the 6.849-second elapsed time and 194.83 speed of Herrera in the Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge. However, Herrera won on a holeshot aboard the Vance & Hines Mission Foods Suzuki, thanks to his outstanding .009-of-a-second reaction time at Bristol Dragway Christmas Tree.
And earlier Saturday, Arana posted a 6.839-second run – quicker than Herrera’s winning time in the bonus race. But even that couldn’t top Herrera for the No. 1 qualifying position. Arana ended up No. 2 in Sunday’s starting line-up, while Herrera improved his leading Friday time from 6.820 seconds to 6.808 on the quarter-mile course.
Herrera remained perfect on the track since joining the Vance & Hines team over the winter. When Sunday eliminations start at 10 a.m. EDT, Herrera will have paced the field at all four bike-class appearances. The DeMotte, Ind., resident has won all three completed events from the No. 1 starting slot and has set low E.T. and top speed at every meet so far.
He'll face No. 16 qualifier Ron Tornow in the opening round of the Thunder Valley Nationals.
STANFIELD IS TOO FAST FOR THEM - Aaron Stanfield claimed the win in the Mission #2Fast2Tasty NHRA Challenge on Saturday in his Janac Brothers Chevrolet Camaro, going 6.637 at 206.32 in his Camaro to defeat points leader Dallas Glenn.
Stanfield, the defending event winner in Bristol, claimed his first victory in the specialty race on the strength of two outstanding runs, knocking off Deric Kramer in the opening round with a 6.631 at 206.80. The young standout will look to defend his Bristol crown on Sunday and make it a double-win weekend in the process.
Stanfield said, “It will definitely be cooler. It's been tricky out here this weekend. The sun's been on the racetrack, and it can get tricky, so it'll be cooler, and I think we might, at the beginning of the day, have some conditions we haven't seen yet.”
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK - MEDLEN’S BACK, SHIRLEY REMEMBERS THE FIRST BRISTOL AND THE FIRST DAY OF THE HECTIC EVENT
WELCOME BACK, JOHN - Paul Lee became a successful businessman by understanding the industry’s workings. When he saw the efficiency of Cruz Pedregon’s team begin an upward trajectory by adding a retired crew chief as an advisor, he figured it would be worth a shot.
Lee had John Medlen in his corner starting at the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals in Bristol, Tenn.
Jason Bunker remains Lee’s crew chief, but with Medlen, the crew can grow to make the most of the investment the McLeod team has made in being competitive.
“After making big investments in the parts of the race team, brand new clutch parts, six-disc going from the five- to the six-disc clutch parts, getting the brand-new front half on the car and getting the latest slate model Dodge Charger bodies, I was pretty excited about this year, but we just haven’t performed up to what the expectations are,” Lee said. “We expected to do much, much better. We don’t have any round wins, and we’ve hardly gotten down the track. I won’t keep racing without, at least, some performance.”
Drag racing is a performance-based business, and while Lee doesn’t make his living off of the straight-line sport, it was easy for him to notice how well bringing in Lee Beard as a consultant is working for Pedregon.
“I noticed that when he was struggling, he bought in a consultant to help him with his team, and as a team, they turned right around,” Lee explained. “So I figured, ‘Why can’t I do that?'”
As Lee saw it, if you’re going to swing the bat, swing for the fence.
“One of the greatest crew chief trios in the sport -- Austin Coil, Bernie Fedderly, and John Medlen,” Lee said. “So to get one of those guys to come out and help, that’s like, ‘Eow, you can’t get much better than that.'
“I’m excited. Especially John being the good guy he is, and we have some things in common.”
Lee especially loves the part where there’s much more in common than nitro and Funny Cars.
“We like to talk about Italian culture and the language, and we both have heart conditions, so I’ve gotten to know him over the years talking about each other’s hearts and how we take care of ourselves,” Lee said. “We’ve always gotten together, chatted for a little bit, and talked about various topics. And then when I was thinking about who I could bring in, I mean, most of the crew chiefs, or all the crew chiefs now, they’re all taken by teams.
“I reached out to one or two, and they’re already working for teams; they’re not going to leave in the middle of the year. I understand that, but I figured why not bring in a consultant? Since we’re a part-time team, that also made it easier because if he wanted to work full-time, he would’ve just stayed at his job.”
Lee believes details are crucial to all teams, especially those running a part-time schedule. He believes Medlen brings an essential skillset to his team.
“When it comes to the parts, more attention to detail since he has a lot more experience than our guys,” Lee said. “So he can help us with the parts. I think we’ve been lacking that he will definitely bring an outside look at how we run our car. The clutch set-up that we bought, he helped develop with some other co-workers when he was at JFR, and he helped develop a lot of this modern technology when it comes to the clutch.
“There’s not many people who know it better than he does, so he can help us in that part, too.”
Lee said the experience will be as educational for him as it will for the team.
“We all have a lot to learn, and if I need to do anything differently as far as driving the car, I’ll certainly do what he asked me to do, for sure,” Lee said.
There’s a demand for top-shelf crew chiefs in nitro racing, and while most are retained by the top teams, there’s a new batch of up-and-comers who could benefit from retired veterans like Medlen.
“Nitro drag racing is a mechanical sport, and you need a good crew chief or someone who can get the car down the track consistently to do well. It doesn’t matter what kind of driver you are, you need a good car. So without a good car, you’re wasting your time. So the goal is to have a good car.”
GUESS WHO ELSE IS BACK? - Erica Enders wasn’t aiming to have the quote of the day Friday at the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals, but it just happened to work out that way.
She emerged from her Melling Performance Chevrolet Camaro as the provisional low qualifier following six races of sheer frustration. Without batting an eye, Enders proclaimed, “It sucks to suck.”
Friday night, her performance indeed didn’t suck as she drove to the top of the qualifying leaderboard with a 6.627 elapsed time at 205.88 miles per hour. Her run edged out teammate Cristian Cuadra, who stepped up in a fast Friday evening session with a 6.632. Defending event champion Aaron Stanfield’s 6.636 was the third quickest of the Elite Performance logjam.
“I was apprehensive to say I think we figured it out because you don’t really know until you figured it out,” Enders admitted. “So that was the proof in the pudding. We feel like in Chicago E1, we figured out what our problem was. We made the run, we were low for the session and tested and then translated here. So super, super exciting.”
Even when Enders was ballin’, so to speak, misfortune was always on the outside, creeping in just a little to let her know to keep her emotions in check. Going to No. 1, it also let her know there's more in the tank.
“I tagged the chip and the 1-2 [shift], and then my transmission tried to deadhead going into high gear, and the G-meter just fell,” Enders said. “So I know that there was more left in that run. That’s the only reason why I’m telling you that. Either way, just super, super excited to be back on the pole.”
Following a 2022 season where she could do no wrong, Enders learned how the pendulum of momentum could swing downward. Headed into this weekend’s event, Enders only has one round win to her credit, and that came in a four-wide format where two racers advance in the first two rounds.
Indeed, the struggle has been real since the season opener in Gainesville.
“Coming off of a season like last year for anyone, I don’t care who you are, is definitely hard to capitalize on,” Enders said. “It’s just you come in expecting the same success, in a sense, not in an arrogant way, just nothing changed in the offseason. We went to Gainesville, which was the first race of the year, and we qualified on the pole, and then my teammate, TJ Coughlin, got us on mile per hour, so we were one [and] two. Our race car did not suck. And then, Sunday morning, I went to hit the starter button, and it wouldn’t fire. Ever since that day, it has been a downward slide, and we’re not doing anything different.
“I didn’t forget how to drive. Jake Harrison and Kyle Bates did not forget how to build horsepower. Richard Freeman did not forget how to run a team. So it’s just kind of one of those deals. Pro Stock has been this way for the 20 years I’ve been driving and the 20 years prior that I watched. The pendulum swings, and when it’s not swinging in your direction, it’s extremely painful, but it always comes back. You just have to be able to weather the storm, and that’s something that our team at Elite Motorsports is great at. We won the 2014 and 2015 championships back-to-back. We switched manufacturers, went from carburetors to EFI, and we barely finished in the top 10. So it’s peaks and valleys, and you've just got to stay strong. What we’ve been through together would tear most teams apart, and that’s what’s so coveted about our team, in my opinion. You can’t buy what we have.”
Just because she weathered the storm didn’t mean her mindset wasn’t a bit chippy from time to time.
“My sister joked yesterday on the way back from the airport that we’re going to hide all the razor blades,” Enders admitted. “But all joking aside, it’s painful. It sucks. It’s awful because you spend the same amount of money, you work just as hard, you’re trying everything that you can, and as I mentioned a second ago, we didn’t forget what we’re doing. It’s not working in our favor right now, and that’s okay. But it’s definitely dark. It definitely sucks.
“I’ve deleted my social media apps off my phone because I want to strangle idiots on the internet that have no clue what they’re talking about. But at the same time, it’s part of what comes with living in a fishbowl, right? Like, they sit on their couch and eat Cheetos, and they watch us race, and they think that they can be a Monday morning quarterback when we’re doing all that we can. And so we just try to keep a positive mental attitude about it, but the human aspect is not always easy.
“One of my crew chiefs this morning walked in, and he put a finger on each side of a temple, and he’s like, ‘It’s the six inches right here that’s going to make the difference,'" Enders confided. “And that’s what’s made the difference and made me a five-time world champion, is what happens up here.
“I give my dad a lot of credit for that because before he made his money in business, he was a positive mental-attitude coach. So Courtney and I grew up in that environment. We didn’t have to go sit in seminars. It was pounded into our heads since we were little kids. So being mentally strong and mentally tough is a huge benefit to it. But there’s the other side of it where some mornings you wake up, and you really have to talk yourself into it. You’re not feeling it. Like you get out of the rental car, and you’re like, ‘I do not want to deal with these people today.'
“But we’re all human. We all put our pants on the same way, and it’s a struggle, but you just got to focus on the good because I could have a normal job and go to work from nine to five, but instead, I get to come out here and play with race cars.”
YOU GO, GIRL - That wasn’t the result she hoped for. That’s Leah Pruett’s assessment of her first qualifying run at Bristol, the one where it only counted for qualifying towards the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals, possibly the only sane session of the day.
“We thought we had a grip on the Epping track and we’re very thankful for our Q1 that we had here because we did not have it right and we had to throw so much at it,” Pruett explained. “Basically, we smoked the tires in Q1 within the first quarter of a revolution. We’ve never smoked that quick. I was able to lift and save a supercharger there.
“But what that gives you going into first round is really not a lot of confidence and that’s what we talk about all the time. And so you don’t have that extra boost, so instead you have to take action. And that’s what we did. We went to every orifice of the race car that we thought was causing us this gigantic mechanical problem that has not been consistent with this year. That’s from injector to manifold to short block to input shaft and then making the same tune-up calls as we would as if that Q1 didn’t happen while you’re running against Doug Kalitta and knowing that they’re going to bring the heat."
It was the insanity of a dual elimination and qualifying run that proved sane.
Pruett laid down a run of 3.745-seconds at 322.42 mph to go to the top provisionally. Her run also gave her a first-round win in the postponed NHRA New England Nationals.
KEEP THEM STRAIGHT - For almost two decades, Robert Hight had one sponsor to keep track of and a single design to run for the year. This season, Hight is juggling three schemes and major sponsors.
“It’s kind of a different deal,” Hight explained. “We felt that AAA didn’t get much coverage last weekend and this is different for me because I’m changing sponsors every race, it seems like. So we worked with Cornwell, and I really want to thank them for letting us run the AAA car during qualifying and giving AAA what they deserve from missing out on all of Sunday’s racing at Epping. We’ll be back in the Cornwell car Sunday, so it’s a little different. I got to look down, check my hat, see what shirt, what uniform I’m wearing, but we got plenty of bodies, and it’s all just different.”
When Hight got through looking down at his uniform, he was able to look up and see a scoreboard shining with the No. 1 qualifying lap of Friday’s second qualifying session and the first round of Epping Funny Car.
Hight scored the provisional pole with his run of 3.938 at 321.35 in his 11,000-horsepower Cornwell Tools/AAA Chevrolet Camaro SS. If the run holds, it would give Hight his second No. 1 qualifier this season and the 79th in his career. That pass also sent the veteran to the second round of the NHRA New England Nationals.
“This is all new for all of us. We’ve never really done anything like this, and it’s a different mindset going up there than if you’re just qualifying,” Hight added. “You have to cut a light, be ready, and put up the best E.T. you can. It’s a little different, but it’s exciting for the fans. It’s also exciting to race at night. I love it. There’s not a better setting in all of motorsports than Thunder Valley here in the evening as the sun is going down. It’s beautiful, and I think fans got their money’s worth today.
“It’s exciting, and getting this win tonight is a big deal. We’ll get a good night’s sleep, get up in the morning, and be ready and focused to go again. You have to be more focused this weekend than you’ve ever had to be before.”
GAIGING HERRERA'S DOMINATION - Don’t mind Gaige Herrera. The rookie Pro Stock Motorcycle racer is channeling his inner Bob Glidden/Steve Torrence thus far this season.
The newest rider in the Vance & Hines operation is currently undefeated in qualifying and eliminations. He has stockpiled wins in Gainesville, Charlotte, and Chicago on his Mission Foods/Vance & Hines Suzuki.
Friday’s first pass was the first time he’s competed in Bristol, Tennessee.
"I would say it's definitely based off what Andrew and Eddie told me and a few other riders, the track is definitely played out to be how they said it was going to be," Herrera said. "It’s different. You've got to be more aware here, but the track is good. Smooth at some spots, but it's a good track."
There’s winning, and then there’s winningest with an exclamation mark.
In Chicago, Herrera made three of the quickest runs in class history, including an impressive run of 6.672 seconds in qualifying. He also won the Mission #2Fast2Tasty NHRA Challenge, something he’ll have a chance to do again this weekend. Herrera will race teammate Eddie Krawiec on Saturday in a semifinal rematch. At the same time, Chip Ellis and Hector Arana Jr. is the other matchup in the specialty race that offers a bonus purse and bonus points Saturday in Bristol.
It’s not like the fields have been comprised of ducks, as Herrera has faced the stoutest the class has to offer, including defending series champion Matt Smith, Steve Johnson, Joey Gladstone, and Angie Smith.
“I’m just taking it race by race,” Herrera said. “I’m having the best season I could ever have starting like this. I didn’t expect to be on the top like I am, but I’m just enjoying it, and I know that anything can happen. We had good success in testing, and that really helped, but there’s a lot of races to go and a lot of time left in the season.”
Herrera continued to put on an impressive show, going 6.820 at 196.63 in the second session on his Mission Foods/Vance & Hines Suzuki to grab the provisional No. 1 position. It’s the fourth straight track where Herrera is making his NHRA debut this year and he’s won at the first three thus far. He’s also on track to earn his fourth straight No. 1 qualifier as Herrera bounced back from a sub-par run to open the day.
For a span of three hours, Herrera appeared to be human and not a machine.
"After the first run, I was just mad at myself for what I did," Herrera said. "So anything just made me determined to ride better, do better. I went out there like it was race day. I pushed the tree and rode the best I could, so that's all I really did. It kind of lit a fire under me, and I went out there and basically rode the bike how I know I can and ran good. So I'm happy with it, for sure."
THIS WEEKEND COULD RANK NO. 2 FOR MILLICAN – Clay Millican said he “doesn’t think anything will ever top” his 2017 Fathers Day first NHRA victory. That's when he was triumphant at home-state Bristol Dragway two years after losing 22-year-old son Dalton in a motorcycle accident and after making 254 NHRA starts without a trophy.
But second on the list could be this weekend’s spectacle, if the West Tennessee native can master the $10,000 Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge and win both the Epping and Bristol Top Fuel races. Of course, the opportunity is available for all the racers this weekend.
Joliet victor Millican said, “That’s certainly our game plan. Will it Top Father's Day weekend for the first NHRA win? I've said this over and over, I don't think anything will ever top that at all. We've won several races since then, but for my family emotionally, personally, nothing will ever come close to what that was and for it to happen the way it did in Tennessee on Father's Day. Yeah, won't nothing ever top that. I don't care if I go on an Ed McCulloch-like string at the U.S. Nationals, it will not beat Bristol Father's Day weekend.” (McCulloch won the Indianapolis classic five times but not consecutively.)
Just the same, Millican said of the chance for a hat trick, “Oh, I think it's awesome. Everything we do this weekend is important, because -- let's face it and if we're being totally honest -- we have four qualifying runs and if you mess one up, you're like, ‘That's OK. We got three more to go or two more to go,' whatever the case may be. So for every single one of them to matter, including the first one, which is just for qualifying, it's so important that you get the car figured out on that first run – because Friday night under the lights in Bristol, it's game time, and from that point forward it every run really, really matters. And I'm excited to stage up at night for a run that counts for elimination. I'm a huge advocate of night racing, and I think this is a cool opportunity for everybody just to come into Bristol to see that. Certainly the round track over there [Bristol Motor Speedway, across the parking lot] is always packed full for Bristol under the lights. And we're going to have night-time qualifying-slash-racing at Bristol under the lights. I am pumped and fired up to stomp on that loud pedal. I'm on a pretty good roll.”
MULDOWNEY REMEMBERS THUNDER VALLEY - In today’s world, such a decision would be unacceptable. For Shirley Muldowney, it was just another roadblock she faced en route to becoming an iconic drag racer who just happened to be a female.
The first national event Muldowney ever attended as an aspiring drag racer was the 1965 NHRA Springnationals, then hosted by Thunder Valley Dragway, now renamed Bristol Dragway. It was also the first time she was told she couldn’t race because she was female.
“That was the old regime back in 1965, and they wouldn’t accept me,” Muldowney said. “I wasn’t pre-entered, but there was room for more cars, I just wasn’t one of the ones they picked. Needless to say, I went home very unhappy.”
Muldowney admits she was never told outright that he couldn’t race because she was female. But if it looks like a duck and quacks like one, it must be a duck.
“Back then, they just didn’t get it, and it’s kind of funny how it all turned out,” Muldowney quipped.
Muldowney would go on to win national events in both the Funny Car (1971 - IHRA) and Top Fuel (1976 - NHRA) divisions, as well as becoming the first to win more than one championship in drag racing’s top-of-the-food-chain division. She would win 18 national events en route to three NHRA championships and one AHRA title.
Friday at the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals, Muldowney ironically was signing autographs as a guest of the NHRA. Who would have thunk it? Muldowney certainly didn’t as she left the race track.
“They realized that [female racers] bring the people in, and we can fill the seats, fill the stands,” Muldowney said. “It worked out real fine for me.”
Bristol Dragway has the unique distinction of being sanctioned at one time by all three major sanctioning bodies (NHRA, AHRA and IHRA). Muldowney raced with all three during her career.
“I never won Bristol,” Muldowney lamented.
LIKE FATHER LIKE SON - Justin Ashley understands he is racing Top Fuel because of his father, and there was no greater feeling than to give his father the trophy from his NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals win last year here in Bristol.
His dad, Mike Ashley, already knew a thing about winning in Bristol. He won the 1990 IHRA Spring Nationals, only the second major Pro Modified national event run in the history of the class. At this point in the elder Ashley’s season, he’d qualified No. 1 and won a national event.
It’s the only event on the tour where the Ashleys have trophies together.
“It really means a lot to me,” Ashley said. “I spent a lot of time out at the racetrack when I was a kid, and it’s tough to get one of these wins, especially when you’re racing at Top Fuel, and the depth of the field is so good, and then to have the added significance of winning an event that my dad won in the past. Then to do it on Father’s Day with him in attendance just made it a really special day altogether.”
Even dating back to his limited days as a Junior Dragster racer, Ashley understood his destiny was to follow in his father’s footsteps.
“It’s very humbling, to be honest with you, because my dad was my hero growing up, and he’s still my hero now, and he’s a mentor for me. So to be able to be in the same conversation as guys like my father, it really does mean a lot to me,” Ashley admitted. “There’s some added pressure, obviously, that comes along with that, but that’s to be expected, and I just hope that I continue to do everything I can to be able to represent him and his legacy well.”
One aspect of driving that the second-gen Ashley faces that his father didn’t back in the day is his penchant for being a gunslinger at the starting line. Mike usually was a frontrunner back in the pioneering days of Pro Modified and used his Scott Shafiroff horsepower to chase down his competition. Justin is the complete package of frontrunner and quick reactor.
“I think that pressure’s a privilege,” Ashley said. “I think that that pressure is there for a reason, and it’s there for a good reason. Generally, as a team, when you’re put in pressure situations, it’s because you’re doing something right, and you have an opportunity to do something great and be great at something.”
Ashley admits the pressure he faces is largely self-induced.
“Nobody’s going to put more pressure on themselves than I put on me, so at the end of the day, it’s always there, whether it’s external or internal, and it just comes from a drive -- a desire to win,” Ashley explained. -- CJ Jenkins
CAPPS AWARE OF THINGS THAT GO BUMP IN THE NIGHT – Funny Car owner-driver Ron Capps isn’t going to lie. He said it: Bristol Dragway, for all of its beauty and appeal, “it's demanding.”
He said, “We've seen in the past, and it's the elephant in a room, obviously, we've talked in the past about some small bumps here at the Bristol track. They fixed a lot of 'em last year. But to be honest with you, we could sit down and talk about all these great racetracks where it's side by side and lane choice doesn't matter and all that. But what makes it unique about going to this track is I think it's kind of a throwback to where you've got to negotiate. There are areas where my crew chief leans into me [and says,] ‘All right, about 300 feet, you got to make sure you're not to the outside of this lane, then you got to get over here and you got to get over here.’ We're lucky if we get these cars down the track, period, with our eyes open.”
“It’s intense to drive a nitro Funny Car. So it's very demanding. There's a lot of little nuances that you've got to negotiate, and I think it brings some really cool stuff every time we race here,” he said. “So they did a great job of fixing those bumps we talk about. This is one of the greatest places we go to, and [the bumps] are there because they built these tunnels for the fans to go back and forth easily, which we don't have at other dragstrips. So kudos to what they've always done at Bristol Dragway.
“Obviously, it did create a little bit of craziness,” said Capps, owner-driver of the NAPA Toyota Supra. “One of the craziest runs I've ever made was Bristol Q2 several years ago, where it went across one of those bumps, about 290 miles an hour, and it had the front end in the air. And I got on the radio and said, ‘That was the coolest thing I've ever done in a nitro Funny Car.’”
Another special memory he said he has comes from another carry-over race, the 2014 Brainerd, Minn., Lucas Oil Nationals that finished at Indianapolis.
“It was cool for me because I took the trophy when we won it in Indy and I sent it back to all the NAPA stores. It was like four months of going around, like the Stanley Cup. They were pouring beer on it, fishing with it, and it took on its own entity on Facebook, and that was cool.”
Spicing up the weekend for fans and racers alike are the Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenges across the pro classes.
Some might shrug at the tiny amount of bankable-for-the-Countdown bonus points – but not Top Fuel’s Justin Ashley and Funny Car’s Ron Capps.
Ashley has the chance to win a third Mission #2Fast2Tasty Challenge, which he said “would give us nine championship points, which equates to almost one whole position in the standings. This weekend could pay huge dividends later in the year. The stakes were high a year ago because the race took place on Father’s Day. But the stakes may be even higher this year because of all the meaningful races that are going to take place throughout the weekend.”
And that includes the specialty races in each class.
The reigning Funny Car king, Capps had only to look at his series championship trophy from last year to reiterate how important are these Countdown bonus points for performing well in the specialty race. Capps held off Robert Hight by a mere three points last November to secure his second straight and third overall title. But Capps has lost by similarly slim margins -- to Jack Beckman in 2012, the skinniest margin of victory in NHRA history, and before that in 2005, to Gary Scelzi by eight points.
“Come down to that, you lose everything you dreamt about,” he lamented. The small points are “very important," he said, "so important that I was pedaling the thing about eight times at Epping [against Chad Green] and Guido [crew chief Dean Antonelli] reminded me that the money and the points isn't worth blowing the car up. And I looked at him funny, and I said, ‘Dude, we won a championship by less than five points last year.’ So there's two sides of the argument. I love it. And it has sparked so much energy and to everybody in the pit area, I'm just telling you as a racer, an owner, whatever and a fan. But I could tell you that you're bummed if you're not in it. You're really bummed come Saturday, because you got to hear about it and then you watch it and you're like, ‘Man, I wish I was in it.’ Obviously the money's great and for Mission Foods to step up and just excite a Saturday that has been huge.”
Capps said, “I forgot there was money when we won it in Chicago. I was like, ‘This is awesome. We got three points,’ and then they're like, ‘Yeah! You won $10 grand.' I'm like, what? I forgot about the money. So yeah, [the points, as small as they might be on any weekend are ] are very, very important.”
For Pro Stock racer Camrie Caruso, the bounce from winning her class’ NHRA All-Star Call-out at Joliet, Ill., and competing in the #2Fast2Tasty bonus race was beyond the track. Although she gained just a single point from the latter, she was thrilled.
“We have a lot of momentum coming into Bristol this year with our Arizona Nationals win and then the big All-Star race win in Chicago,” she said. “I think that win in Chicago was huge, because that was eight of the best Pro Stock drivers this season, and this Tequila Comisario KB Titan Racing team came out on top. We had to beat three tough drivers to get the win, and I could not be prouder of my team for giving me such a great race car. Getting to race in the Mission #2Fast2Tasty Challenge is a big deal, and I want to thank the NHRA and Mission Foods for putting that program together.”
Caruso has been featured on marketing materials at both Chicago and Epping, N.H., and she said, “It is great to have the chance to win extra money and championship points, but it is cool to see yourself in a Walmart in Chicago or Epping. We took the display from the Walmart in Epping to keep back at the shop. We did some social media posts about being in the Walmart first.”
Top Fuel’s Josh Hart said, “You want to give yourself a chance to cash in. Saturday night could be a huge opportunity.”
Hart knows about those. He earned the biggest payout so far this season – $80,000 check from the Pep Boys All-Star Call-Out in March at Gainesville. “That last run Saturday night could be for the $10,000 Mission Challenge money, three championship points, the New England Nationals’ winner’s check, and possibly three qualifying bonus points. Anything is possible is what I always say.”
So the Challenge definitely is no small opportunity to racers.
MCCLENATHAN WITHDRAWS - Former Top Fuel superstar turned Nostalgia Funny Car has some sage advice for the rumor mongers: Don’t believe everything you hear.
The combination of his team owner Rick Akers being hospitalized to the team’s hauler breaking down in Arkansas is why they are not participating in this weekend’s Legends of Funny Car competition during the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals in Bristol, Tenn.
“Everybody’s speculating a lot of stuff,” McClenathan said. “They’re speculating I got fired. None of that’s true. My biggest thing was, if you want to know the truth and know what’s going on, you got to call the owner.”
McClenathan told CompetitionPlus.com that Akers is home and resting comfortably after a brief hospital stay.
“He’s probably one of the strongest men I’ve ever met as far as fighting his health issues,” McClenathan said. “He was driving the truck up, and they had a couple of mishaps with the truck. One was a wheel that came off completely, and that was in Arkansas. That’s where the truck is right now. We were all told it’s time to go home, that we couldn’t make it to race that race.”
McClenathan said the team is working hard to keep moving forward despite the setbacks.
“[Rick] has got some infections, and it took a toll on him,” McClenathan said. “Not to mention that he’s such a hard ass. He always feels like he’s got to drive the truck, and it’s like, I’ve been trying to get him to fly in and have somebody else drive it for months now.”
This weekend’s misfortunate is par for the course when it comes to the track record the 34-time national event winner holds when racing at Bristol Dragway. It’s been a love/hate relationship with his win in 2000 at the specialty event, the Winston No Bull Showdown, and then later the 2006 crash when his dragster broke in half. Through it all, McClenathan loves the Thunder Valley.
“I’m heartbroken that I can’t run Bristol,” McClenathan said. “It’s been my nemesis, and it’s been the best race I’ve ever won as well, in the past, because winning the Winston Showdown and then crashing hard in 2006 makes Bristol my kind of Achilles' heel type of thing. I’m at a loss for words for not being there. I feel horrible that we’re not going to be able to compete there, but we’re not down and out, and we’re working to move forward.”