2023 NHRA U.S. NATIONALS - FUNNY CAR NOTEBOOK
Now, that's how you honor a legend.
On the 50th anniversary of Don “The Snake” Prudhomme’s maiden victory at the U.S. Nationals, Ron Capps paid the perfect tribute to the all-time great with a win of his own Monday at the Dodge Power Brokers NHRA U.S. Nationals in a throwback livery honoring his former boss.
Capps, who now drives for his own team, raced for Prudhomme’s Snake Racing team from 1997-2004, winning 13 races together in Funny Car. To honor their achievements, Capps worked with longtime sponsor NAPA to set aside their traditional predominantly blue design for a bright yellow Hot Wheels scheme that Capps used as motivation to collect back-to-back wins at the biggest drag race in the land at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park.
“It’s coming full circle,” an elated Capps said. “You can’t dream this big. We did it to have some fun, to do something cool for Indy. When I was going to go off and do my own thing as a team owner, (Prudhomme) was probably the third person I called, besides my mom and my dad. Since then I’ve been wanting to do a real throwback. Thankfully, the people that make the decisions at NAPA Auto Parts understood the legacy, and understood how cool this thing was, and they stepped off the car and made sure that we did it the right way.”
Behind the wheel of a near-replica of the classic 1970s machine, Capps capped a stellar Monday with a wire-to-wire victory over J.R. Todd in a battle of bright yellow Toyotas. Capps left first and never trailed in his Hot Wheels/NAPA Toyota GR Supra, stopping the clocks with a 3.986-second lap at 323.27 miles per hour to earn his third win of the season and the 76th of his career. Todd simply could not match the defending race winner, finishing runner-up with a 4.131 at 288.09 mph.
It was a Herculean effort for Todd just to make the final after brake-system failure in the semifinals saw his DHL Toyota being hauled back to the pits on a flatbed. Under the gun, the team pulled together and got the car ready for the final as Todd fell short of his third U.S. Nationals victory.
In addition to sporting the unique livery, Prudhomme himself was on the starting line and in the NAPA team’s pit area throughout the weekend, even warming up the car prior to one of the qualifying runs. So when Capps caught a glimpse of his former team owner standing behind him as he staged for the final, he said that the gravity of the moment quickly caught up with him.
“It was so very cool to be somebody that was picked to drive for him. To put this deal together with Mattel and Hot Wheels behind it, that was cool because they are such a legendary brand,” Capps said. “To have him behind the car all weekend is emotional. To see him standing behind me, I had flashbacks of when I drove for him. It was cool to get the fist bumps after every big round we had today, to see that old ‘snake’ come out. He was ready, he was pumped. He was telling me, ‘Go up there just like the old days.’ It was just a lot of fun the whole weekend.”
Of course, the most emotional moment came when Capps got his hands on the Wally trophy. Famously, Capps has had a love/hate relationship with the U.S. Nationals, winning championships and many of the sport's biggest races, but a win at the biggest race of the year had eluded him until last year. Now, Capps has back-to-back wins at the 'Big Go' and was quick to reminisce about a time when he wondered if he would ever win here.
“Every year I got harped on. Even when I won my first championship, I had never won the U.S. Nationals,” Capps said. “You don’t ever want to go your career and not have at least one. Even if you won world championships, there is a big void there. I made the comment a few years ago that the drag racing gods will decide when it’s your turn. There’s so much weird history here, and so many ghosts, I just said it is when they decide it is my time.
“It was my time last year. Then today, beating [Matt] Hagan and clinching the regular season was cool. Then to beat Robert Hight, who’s just running amuck this weekend, that was the car to beat. To get up and beat them like that was huge. Then, my Toyota teammate J.R. and not having lane choice in the final round. Our back was against the wall every round and we earned every bit of it today.”
Capps began the day with an easy win over Dale Creasy Jr, putting down his best lap of the entire weekend with a 3.894 at 326.87 mph in the first-round triumph.
He moved past Matt Hagan in Round Two in a pedalfest as the drivers left together, but began to lose traction early. Capps got to the line first with a 4.582 to Hagan’s 5.146.
In the semifinals, Capps advanced to his sixth final round of the season with a win over Robert Hight, the No. 1 qualifier and the winner of the Pep Boys NHRA Funny Car Callout from Sunday. Keeping with the theme of his previous two opponents, Hight lost traction early and couldn’t hang on as Capps sailed to the finish line first at 4.029, 323.50 mph.
Todd defeated Blake Alexander, Bob Tasca and Cruz Pedregon to reach his fourth final round of the year.
While Capps certainly drew attention throughout the weekend as the defending race winner, the real star of the show was the car itself. Capps tried to treat every round the same and not think about the legacy of the colorful snake on the door of his car.
“I was hoping I wouldn’t see the outside of the car (this weekend), but I could see a tinge of the hood and the yellow, which I never see in my normal car,” Capps said. “I was trying to separate myself a little more and not get emotional about trying to do better because Snake was here.
“The final round, believe it or not, they lowered the body and we were rushed so much to get up here I didn’t have time to get real super nervous for a final, which is good. They dropped the body and I could see that yellow and I said, ‘Don’t look at that big screen’ and there was Snake standing there and I was like, ‘S***, you told yourself not to look up there.’ It was a quick tree for both J.R. and I and we just took off, so I didn’t have time to get more emotional, thank God.”
After the race, as Capps had a moment to reflect on his 76th win behind the wheel of a Funny Car, he recalled what Prudhomme meant to his career, plucking a young man out from the crowd and giving him his first shot in a big show car.
“I wouldn’t be here, period, if he hadn’t seen something in me,” Capps said. “I’d never sat in a Funny Car, never driven one. We dropped the body the first day to get my license, and I had to take a timeout and raise the body up and shut it off. That’s what Funny Car is. It demands every bit of respect. To have him in my corner my whole life and the dad he was to me, you just can’t put a price on it.”
Capps’ back-to-back race wins at Brainerd and Indianapolis helped him to secure the regular-season championship over Hagan and Hight.
Now Capps shifts his focus from the famed track in Indianapolis to the Countdown to the Championship, where he is the defending series champion. And if last year’s Indy win was a precursor to things to come, he likes his odds beginning in a few weeks at Maple Grove Raceway, especially with crew chief Dean “Guido” Antonelli in his corner.
“There’s so many good cars right now, so we just hope to keep the momentum,” Capps said. “It’s great to get this win and today, Snake and I talked about the conditions and what Guido did and he was on top of what was happening. We’re going to see some tracks likethis, but we also have a couple races into the Countdown and then it’s cool conditions and badass track surfaces. It’s going to be a throwdown, and I’m blessed to have a crew chief like Guido that could do what he did today.” - Larry Crum
SUNDAY NOTEBOOK - HIGHT GETS THE BIG CHECK, CAPPS LOVED HIS TOYS AND FIELDS SET FOR SUNDAY
RIVERBOAT ROBERT - Robert Hight makes it a habit not to second-guess himself, but this time, he had a heavy dose of the 'what ifs' rolling through his mind like a Times Square New York news ticker. One day earlier, Hight had called out Ron Capps as his first-round opponent in the first round of the Pep Boys All-Star Callout.
"Well, I don't know. I don't know that it's genius. I'll be honest.
"You're sitting in your car for first round, and you're thinking, 'Boy, I hope I made the right decision," Hight admitted. "I hope I don't go up here and choke and do something stupid and really look stupid."
"Just because you call somebody out doesn't mean you're going to beat them. You've got to now go out and get the job done and then do your job, and it can go a million ways."
Hight not only beat Capps but also two-time NHRA Cruz Pedregon before beating Hagan in the final round.
Gamble knew he'd made a major gamble on himself, and in the end, it paid off big time.
"These are race cars that anything can happen, and the driver can screw up, the car can break, can be overpowering, anything can happen," Hight said. "Another thing, too, is I feel that there's no doubt about it. It's going to be Hagan and Capps right to the bitter end. We're going to be fighting these guys out, and so this is practice. If you happen to get it done, you're one up on them."
After rounds one and three, Hight found himself one-up on them.
"First off, we knew that that was our only round that's guaranteed we have lane choice," Hight said. "If there happens to be a better lane, we might as well put him in it. Like I said last night, we always seem to, after qualifying, look at the ladder and say, 'Oh, wow, we got the easy side."
"We never do good on those days. We screw up. So, I think these better drivers bring out the best in us, and we work harder. That's what we did today. I mean, we beat three world champs today. We earned this thing. I mean, we had our hands full. And then, I think that's what the fans want to see. That's what this is all about. Not pick what you think is the weakest duckling. Let's go out there and see what you got and get it over with the first round, whether you win or lose. I mean, the way I look at it is we can beat Capps or lose to him first round or final. It's going to happen. So, do the best we can, and the chips will fall where they fall."
BOYS AND THEIR TOYS - Contrary to popular belief, not all young Ron Capps's favorite toys were drag racing themed. Without a doubt, his favorite toy was the pocket-sized Hot Wheels diecasts.
"I never remembered all of their names, but I do remember them like yesterday," Capps said.
The two favorites turned out to be the Twin Mill and the Red Baron, two of the 1969 designs.
"It's funny because when my son got eight or nine or 10, we broke out an original Hot Wheels set and played like my brother and I used to play," Capps admitted. "And then Snake got me one of the reissued ones. And it's funny, I've kept that sealed, which is the other way around. But I opened up one. It could be worth so much money, but I wanted to play with my kids."
While the Hot Wheels cars had a price on them, some of which fetch over $300 on the collector's market, the moment he drove a car representing the 1970s version of Don Prudhomme's car, that moment was priceless.
"I've dreamt what we're looking at with the Prudhomme tribute, literally laying in bed, dreaming about the chance or the opportunity even to try that," Capps said. "Every year we see NASCAR do their throwback weekends, and you see how they have fun with it, and they have a little tinge of something throwback, but it's never a throwback. It's always a sponsored car, and they try to make it look a little bit like it with their sponsors, but it's never a true throwback. And we went the other direction."
But, before he could entertain the idea, it needed to pass the Prudhomme approval process. And Prudhomme had been approached many times for tribute cars; none, he said, came close to gaining his approval. But Capps, as Prudhomme said, nailed it to the wall with his approach.
Then, Capps' long-time sponsor, NAPA Auto Parts, had to give its blessing.
From Day One, Capps said NAPA loved the idea and put its signage where its feelings were.
"I was blessed to have the people at NAPA Auto Parts say yes to this," Capps explained. "They actually turned down having more NAPA signage on the hood because they wanted to keep the stars. And even where it says “The Snake” on the very front, they didn't want anything to interfere with how original this car was. That's how I'm still blown away. I'm getting emotional about it because you have no idea what it takes.
"I had every Funny Car and dragster driver come up and ask me how I pulled that off with a sponsor because everybody wants to do something like this. We all got our heroes. Don Garlits. You go down the list. How cool would it be to have Shirley, a car done with the Alexis [DeJoria] for Shirley, a real throwback like this — and you could go down the list of [Raymond] Beadle and Richard Tharp.
"I'm blessed that [NAPA] understood how important this was, that we keep it the way it is. We all hoped it would be 50% as good as we all thought it could be. And then it got wrapped, and then, I mean, just as it went along, it has been 100% as good as I thought it was going to be. And it just kept going and going. And everything we've done with it has been the best. I did this as a fan. I'm a fan growing up, but I did it because I understood how important that was in my lifetime growing up."
And for Capps, nothing was more important than his Hot Wheels cars.
MAKING AN IMPACT - After a successful endeavor in four races one year ago, Kalitta Motorsports, long-time partner DHL Express and Kalitta Air are partnering again to accelerate the fight against food insecurity by helping those who need it most -- working families, children and senior citizens – through a six-race program in 2023: The “Race to End Hunger.”
The United States Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as “a lack of consistent access to enough food for every person in the household to live an active, healthy life.” Partnering with Feeding America, the largest charity working to end hunger in the United States, DHL, Kalitta Motorsports and Kalitta Air will support the race to end food insecurity.
During the next six NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series events, every time Team Kalitta drivers Doug Kalitta, J.R. Todd or Shawn Langdon turn on a race day win light, Kalitta Motorsports will donate $1,000, and both DHL and Kalitta Air will match it with their own $1,000 donations making each race day win light worth $3,000, or more importantly, some 30,000 meals.
Feeding America established Hunger Action Month in 2008 to create a nationwide push to address the hunger crisis across the United States. Each September, people work to feed the hungry in their communities by helping the 49 million people who live with hunger every day. Consider:
* People in the United States who are food insecure: 34 million
* Children in the United States who are food insecure: 9 million (1 in 8 kids)
* People who turned to food programs in 2022: 49 million
* Counties in the United States with food insecurity: 100 percent
Food deprivation affects people of all ages; children throughout the country go to school without a proper breakfast leading to difficulty focusing in the classroom. Families facing hunger are forced to decide between buying food and paying for housing, transportation or medical bills.
The expanded program kicked off at the Dodge Power Brokers NHRA U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis and will continue at each of the following five NHRA Camping World Drag Racing events: the Pep Boys NHRA Nationals Sept. 15-17 in Mohnton, Pa., the Betway NHRA Carolina Nationals Sept. 22-24 in Concord, N.C., the NHRA Midwest Nationals Sept. 29-Oct. 1 in Madison, Ill., the Texas NHRA FallNationals Oct. 13-15 in Ennis, Texas and the NHRA Nevada Nationals Oct. 27-29 in Las Vegas.
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK - FORCE AND HIS MAGICAL FOOT HEADLINES DAY TWO OF INDY
AWWWWWW FOOT - John Force kept looking at his foot, almost trying to find the perfect apology.
“My foot just went,” Force said. “It’s like it had a mind of its own.”
One would think after 155 national event wins, the most prolific drag racer ever to drive a Funny Car wouldn’t apologize for winning. Force was doing a lot of it on Saturday evening following his first career Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge, where he beat Ron Capps in the final round of the specialty event.
It could have been an apology tour, but then again it could have been Force being the cagey player he is. If he can make folks think its just luck, and not the norm they might not get up on the steering wheel against him. But when you’re the G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time), a term Force has never come to grips with, the competition is gonna be coming at you like a banshee.
A .022 light against teammate/Team President Robert Hight put him in the finals against Capps, driving the Don Prudhomme-tribute Funny Car.
It was as if Force was getting to race against his hero, something he hadn’t done since the fall of 1989 in Topeka. He beat Prudhomme convincingly as a payback for the embarrassment of getting curb-stomped at the U.S. Nationals.
Prudhomme and Force have history at Indianapolis, as the 16-time champion laughs when they almost came to blows over “Snake cutting the staging lanes line,” ahead of the then unproven Force in the 1970s.
“Those are just old stories,” Force said with a smile on Saturday evening. Force quickly changed the subject.
What wasn’t old is what Force did to Capps in the final round. The old champ left the line first with a .017 reaction. “There went that foot again,” Force admitted.
Force’s triumph in the bonus race added another milestone to his illustrious career and legacy at the iconic Indy track.
“I wanted to win the Mission deal, but it was an opportunity that I got away with it,” Force said. “You just do what you do and attack it. Some days, the good Lord lets me get away with it, and I did today. It was good to come in here to Indy and be able to do your job at my age.”
And for Force, he’s got to get the foot looked at so he really doesn’t hurt someone even worse.
HIGHT ROCKS QUALIFYING - Robert Hight claimed the provisional No. 1 spot on Saturday during the Dodge Power Brokers NHRA U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park.
Hight, behind the wheel of Cornwell Tools/AAA Chevrolet Camaro SS, clocked an impressive time of 3.853 seconds at 329.67 mph underneath the lights at The Big Go. Should this hold, Hight will celebrate his fourth No. 1 qualifier this season and the remarkable 81st of his career.
This performance provides the multi-time champion with significant momentum heading into Sunday’s Pep Boys NHRA Funny Car All-Star Callout.
“That was big. We stayed and tested Monday after Brainerd, and things went really well,” Hight said. “So far, our first three runs here have been pretty impressive. When the car responds to what Jimmy [Prock, crew chief] is doing and it runs what he says it’s going to run, you can’t be any more confident than that.”
Despite the formidable competition, Hight remains optimistic, underscoring the fine-tuning efforts of his team.
“They’re fine-tuning this thing right now; it’s not just ‘make a bunch of changes and see what sticks.’ They’re fine-tuning parts of the run, and that’s how you become consistent and win.”
In the specialty event, Hight eagerly selected back-to-back world champ Ron Capps for Sunday’s race, setting the stage for an intense showdown. Bob Tasca III picked John Force, Matt Hagan chose Tim Wilkerson, and Cruz Pedregon and Alexis DeJoria emerged as the final pairing.
THE PASSION TO MAKE IT HAPPEN - It’s his passion for drag racing that will get your attention. Moments after an exhilarating and hard-fought battle, Funny Car racer Blake Alexander lept from the Jim Head Racing Funny Car and let it fly without a corporate correctness care in the world. His passion moved him to the point a blind man could have seen it.
“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.
Alexander’s passion is deep-rooted.
“I don’t want to admit this, but it’s really all I am,” Alexander said. “It’s all I am now, at this point. I’m 34 years old. When you’re a kid, and you’ve been saving up your money to run a junior dragster, and you and your dad finally get to do that, and then as I kind of progress up through the ranks, you just kind of realize that this is all I’ve ever done kind of like Del Worsham and Nicky Boninfante.
“I was kind laughing at what Del and Nicky, when he was saying they never had a job, and I was kind of like, ‘Well, I’ve dug some holes, and I’ve worked in some warehouses, but all I’ve really ever done since I was 16 is drag race.” Or really, since I was 10, but when you’re doing it in junior drag racing.”
The more Alexander thinks about it, the more he realizes he’s an old soul with an affection for all things nitromethane.
“It’s been nice getting to know these other older nitro heads like Jim [Head] because I’m just like them. It’s in a unique new way, but I’m addicted to nitro, just like the people were in the ’70s and ’80s. It’s just a different look and a different feel to it than a guy who lived in a trailer park in Yorba Linda and grew up. I’m just a kid who would now have to have a laptop and some education to kind of come up in the drag racing ranks from nothing, I guess.”
Alexander would tell you that no matter how many times you threw the variables of his career into a bag and shook them up when the bag emptied, his best option would always be teaming up with Head, one of the most opinionated and passionate players in the game with more life experience than a whippersnapper like Alexander could imagine.
“He’s like a renaissance man in that he’s very into a lot of different things and understands a lot of different things,” Alexander explained. “I could talk to him about skiing, snowboarding, and all the board sports I do. I can also talk to him about food and sports and stuff, and then we also have conversations about drag racing. And it’s very nice to be able to race with someone who teaches me about life, business, and racing all at the same time. He has taught me basically a lot of things about how to be efficient as a businessman.”
The intimidation factor? “Please,” Alexander laughed. “I’ve driven for Paul Smith before.”
“Jim’s put his whole life into it, and I’m putting my whole life into it as a response,” Alexander said. “So that’s really all I can say. The kids on our race team are putting their whole life into it. So if you just look at it that way, then let the chips fall where they may each weekend; I know that is all I can do each day, almost to the point of it not being mentally healthy. Then, from that point forward, I just work on being focused on being a good race car driver because that’s a completely different element of... I’ve had to work really hard to get good at that.”
Alexander said while he’d love to believe their relationship is mutually knowledge beneficial, the reality is scales are leaned heavily in favor of him being a sponge and learning as much as he can.
“I think he’s certainly taught me more,” Alexander said. “I’m a younger person. Anyone who’s older than me is going to teach me, and that’s something I would implore to people of my generation is just to sit back and listen sometimes and watch. But I’d say that, yeah, I have a new style of doing things, and it may not all be the right way of doing it, but there’s a modern-day of working, and he’s stylistically adapted to that and accepted that.
“Jim’s the type of guy that’s capable of doing that, to begin with. So he still uses his phone and, is up on technology and reads all the time. So, just because a little bit older than me doesn’t mean that we can’t necessarily connect.
“I just like working with [Jim] because there’s not a man in the pits that cares more than him about how everything’s going from the safety standpoint or the way the car is running, to the understanding of it. And I’m glad that I can be involved in a small portion of that and learn along the way.”
Every day, Alexander is hustling and hustling, keeping the dream alive and sealing deals one by one.
“There’s a sense of pride that I have in doing what I do, and I think people know that when they meet me and I wear it a little bit and I think it makes me a better all-around businessman, person, and husband and father,” Alexander said. “Every day, I struggle, and I don’t do a very good job of being a perfect person by any means, but at the end of the day, that’s all I really care about. Then, within the realm of being a good teammate, a good business partner to Jim, I need to work really hard every day to try to find money to support my family, to support the race team’s families, to be a big cog in the wheel so I can compete against these big teams that have huge establishments that we’re competing against. I think we have a good shot against them this weekend because we work hard.”
UMM NO - Those who have won Indy cherish the memories, and for Matt Hagan, one in particular stands out from last year’s triumph.
Hagan was sick as a dog last year but soldiered his way to the winner’s circle.
“I was so sick with the flu that I didn’t want to get out of bed on Monday,” Hagan said. “I prayed that we would go out first round because I wanted to drink more NyQuil and go back to bed. We ended up winning the race. I remember pulling the parachutes and just this mucus hitting my visor. It was one of those things where I was like, “Man, I’ll never forget this.”
Those who read this won’t either.
HEY! IT’S TJ IN A FUNNY CAR, KINDA-SORTA - There’s a familiar face competing at the U.S. Nationals this weekend – just not in a familiar class.
Tommy Johnson Jr., a veteran Top Fuel and nitro Funny Car racer, is driving a Top Alcohol Funny Car for Nunzio Valerie Racing.
“Nunzio is from New York, and this is a new team, and he just had this car built by Anthony Dicero, and Anthony is running it for him,” Johnson Jr. said. “I have worked with Anthony in the past and he said ‘Hey we have this new car and would you mind coming and shaking it down for us. I tested it three times and (Nunzio) said, ‘Do you just want to race it at Indy?’
“Nunzio is going to get his license (to drive the Funny Car) eventually, but right now he doesn’t have his license and asked if I would race it for him.”
Johnson Jr. tested Valerie’s Funny Car at Lucas Oil Raceway Park in Indy before coming to the U.S. Nationals.
“We came out here three times and tested,” Johnson Jr. said. “It is an all-new car and all new rules package, so it is taking a little while to work out all the bugs. They have had A-Fuel dragsters for years, but they never had A-Fuel Funny Cars so now they do. Mick Steele has one and we have one. There are only two of them right now.
“The (A-Fuel) Funny Car is not as fast as I’m used to, but the basic driving operation is exactly the same as a (nitro) Funny Car.”
After two rounds of Top Alcohol Funny Car qualifying at Indy through Friday Johnson was No. 11 in the field with a 5.820-second elapsed time at 215.31 mph.
The last time Johnson Jr. drove a Funny Car was Sept. 12, 2021, when he was subbing for Don Schumacher Racing nitro Funny Car pilot Matt Hagan, who was sidelined with COVID-19.
Johnson Jr. powered the DSR Funny Car to the title at the Mopar Express Lane NHRA Nationals presented by Pennzoil in Reading, Pa. He beat legend John Force in the final round.
So, Johnson Jr. jumped at the opportunity to drive for Valerie.
“There are some new rules for alcohol Funny Car, and I thought let’s just go have some fun,” he said.
Johnson last drove a Top Alcohol Funny Car from 1986-1989 for his family-owned team and was a championship-winning driver in NHRA’s Division V.
The last time Johnson Jr. competed fulltime in the NHRA was in 2020 when he was driving a Funny Car for powerhouse DSR.
Johnson Jr. drove a Top Fueler for Rapisarda over the years before joining DSR and running a nitro Funny Car fulltime from 2014-2020.
“I’m just selling parts and building stuff for people, woodworking,” Johnson Jr. about what he’s been doing since departing the NHRA driving scene. “I have my own parts business. I sell to all the Top Fuel, Funny Car teams and lot of other classes, but it’s basically... The parts and supplies, everything they run out of every week. They’re always going through stuff through the weekend, so I sell everything from tape and zip ties to nuts, bolts, spark plugs, bearings. Pretty much anything that they require a lot of throughout the season, I sell.
“I’m still in touch with all the teams. I see them every week. Everybody comes and sees me to pick stuff up for the next race. Between that and my woodworking I keep pretty busy.”
Johnson’s parts store is in Brownsburg, Ind., across the street from the Lucas Oil shop. He has been running the parts store since 2013.
During his decorated racing career Johnson Jr. has competed and won in Top Fuel and Funny Car and he has no qualms about driving either one again.
“I would love to drive (in Top Fuel or Funny Car) again, I’m just waiting for the right opportunity,” said Johnson Jr., who has won 23 national event Wallys combined in Funny Car and Top Fuel. “This (running the Top Alcohol Funny Car) is something to do and keep your name out there. I love drag racing and any chance to go out and play a little bit and have some fun and help some people out I’m all about it.”
Johnson doesn’t know if Indy will be a one-off race in Valerie’s Top Alcohol Funny Car.
“We will see how it goes,” Johnson Jr. said. “They want to run the car some more and this gets us started anyway.”
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK - TASCA'S WILD RIDE VAULTS HIM TO THE TOP AS HAGAN AND OTHERS PLOT THEIR COURSES
SO THAT'S HOW THAT FEELS - Not that Bob Tasca III wondered, but now he has a good idea of what it would be like to drive an 11,000-horsepower fuel Funny Car with his eyes closed.
Friday, as the sun set on the horizon of Indianapolis Raceway Park during the first day of professional qualifying for the NHRA U.S. Nationals, he had quite the experience as he stopped the timers with a 3.864 elapsed time at 324 miles per hour.
"That sun was coming down, and I still can't believe sometimes, your right foot stays down," Tasca explained. "You can't really see, but your brain says, 'Well, I guess we're far enough away from the wall not to lift."
"Literally you drive the car and you can't see out the front windshield and that glare that comes down as that sun's just starting to set. I think probably me and Robert [Hight] had it the worst because then it starts to set real fast, it gets dark, but it felt so good. It sounded good, it was smooth. And I came back to the guys, I said, 'When you pull it up on the computer, you're going to smile," because sometimes you get all of it and it's sketchy."
Tasca said his Ford Mustang was glued to the track for the entire length of the 1,000-foot course.
Crew chiefs Todd Okuhara and Aaron Brooks "looked at me and they're like, 'Yeah, we could have got some more of it,'" Tasca said. "So tomorrow is a new ballgame. We'll be running right about now, which will make a big difference even if it's a little hotter during the afternoon. This track cools down real fast, and I think you're going to have to step up to hold onto it. But the good news is we've got a package that we can definitely step up for tomorrow night."
LIKE RIDING A HORSE - Before anyone could get the idea Don "The Snake" Prudhomme was contemplating a comeback, the drag racing icon quashed the idea he might get addicted to the sport again. Sure, Prudhomme loves drag racing; that aspect will never change. But driving again, sparked by his warming up the Hot Wheels-themed entry honoring his 1973-winning entry Friday at the Dodge Power Brokers NHRA U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, "Not gonna happen."
"Didn't like it," Prudhomme admitted with a smile.
But the concept of the tribute car?
Prudhomme said he was speechless the first time he saw it. Sitting in bed early in the morning and drinking his coffee, he started at the text message sent to him by car owner -- and former driver for Prudhomme -- Ron Capps.
"Holy s***," Prudhomme said were his first words.
Prudhomme admitted he was a bit nervous ahead of the warmup.
"I hadn't done it in so long, but it was a piece of cake," he said.
As Prudhomme saw it, if Kenny Bernstein could warm up a modern nitro car -- which he did for Antron Brown at Denver -- he could, too.
One has to wonder, what could the master of cool be so worried about when warming up a nitro car?
"I just don't want to do anything wrong in there," Prudhomme said. "You don't want to step on the pedal or anything like that while the thing's idling because it might screw up their clutch pack, and I don't want to be responsible for that."
Prudhomme expounded on why driving doesn't have the same hold on him.
"The problem is that even when I got out, there were guys that were doing it better than me," Prudhomme said. "When [Larry] Dixon started driving for me, heck, he jumped in the car and did what I was doing. I didn't need to do that anymore. I just moved on as team owner. As far as wanting to drive it, no, not especially. No, I don't. Sorry to say."
FEAST OR FAMINE - Matt Hagan has a point: The legendary Babe Ruth didn't always hit home runs.
"When he connected with it, he'd knock it out of the park, man," Hagan said. "For me, I've always been like that with all the sports I've ever played -- aggressive. That's just how I try to push our team to be."
Hagan's season thus far has been one of feast or famine. He has four wins, but also has four first-round losses. The most recent shortfall came two weekends ago against Dave Richards, a driver he had covered by plenty on paper.
"I think what we do is like walking on a razor-blade edge," Hagan said. "You have to push so hard, but you can push over the center, and that line is so, so fine that you have to thread the needle. You have to be on that edge of it and then back up a bit, which changes every round. I do lean towards my crew chief to push more, I think, a lot of times. I do think sometimes we go up there and maybe make a layup instead of trying to throw a 3-pointer. I don't know, that's my mentality with everything. It's just like I want it all or don't want any of it at all."
Hagan said the level of competition in the Funny Car division is such that one had better bring their best game -- and then some -- every time.
"You're not going to back into one of these championships," Hagan said. "You have to set the example. You have to run a couple of hundredths better. I have to leave a couple of hundredths better on the tree and then let it all fall in where it falls. I think being on the aggressive side for me is where I want to live more. If that means falling off the edge here and there and smoking out the tires in the first round, so be it. I'd rather go up there and do that than get outrun by (5/100ths).
"When you go up there, and it's just like you got beat by .04 or .05, those are tough to swallow. It is feast or famine a lot of times. Babe Ruth struck out a lot of times, swinging for a home run. You got to get up there, and you got to push. That's why everybody remembers Babe Ruth.
THE 300 MILES PER HOUR GREETER - Even a Walmart greeter doesn't stand a chance. Two-time NHRA Funny Car champion Cruz Pedregon serves as this year's nitro greeter for those arriving by airplane at the Indianapolis International Airport [IND].
"It's really an honor," said Pedregon. "For years, I've seen Indy cars, NASCAR, and a lot of history here at Indy, so it's a great proud moment really to have NHRA to give us the invite."
For the record, this isn't some placeholder show car. Pedregon said it's the real deal.
"It's not a show car," Pedregon said. "That car will run. We've run that body this year, the chassis. Just put some power plugs in it and some nitro and oil, and it's ready to go. Hopefully, that's something we do every year. And, hey, this is the big three here, all the big three auto racing. I don't know how many people walk through there, but hopefully, it's a lot, and they come out because of it, too."
HEY, CHAD! WHAT ARE YOU DOING? - Daniel Wilkerson quickly got on the radio and chastised his driver for what he perceived was a shortcoming behind the wheel. There was one problem for Wilkerson: He was the one driving.
Wilkerson drove during the recently completed Night Under Fire event at Summit Racing Equipment Motorsports Park behind the wheel of Chad Green's Funny Car with his dad, Tim Wilkerson, tuning.
"It definitely helps me sympathize with Chad," Wilkerson said. "I told a few people it is insane how many thoughts you can think in four seconds. And one of the things I was literally ... I was yelling at Chad. I was driving, and I was like, 'Get the thing back in the middle,' because it chattered over a little bit and it was like, I could see Chad, but I was like, 'It's you, dummy. You drag it back.'"
During the challenging pass, Wilkerson said when a driver has to manhandle a car back into shape, it gets scariest.
"The time I was dragging it back, I was thinking, 'This is about when it gets really scary,'" Wilkerson admitted. "Then it got really scary, and it went really fast. So, I went 3.95, 320, which is a pretty good run for me. I haven't made a bunch of runs, so it was very exciting."
Wilkerson remembers all too well his dad giving him advance notice the run was going to be a good one.
"He said essentially, 'It'll haul ass,' so it ran pretty good,'" Wilkerson recalled. "We were also running clutch discs that we haven't run a bunch, so it behaved a little, I guess you could say. Less aggressive than we thought, but it was good. It worked out good."
The elder Wilkerson made a name for himself pulling the dual role of driver and tuner. Daniel Wilkerson prefers one or the other, but isn't shy of pulling off the same magic as his old man.
"When [Chad] was injured last year, I was able to do both, and I told a bunch of these guys, 'That's pretty exciting, that's pretty cool,'" Wilkerson said.
And if you think he paces the starting line now, then he nearly wore a hole in his driving shoes.
"That's where a lot of people make fun of me because I pace, but that's how I think," Wilkerson said. "I think the best when I'm pacing. And when I'm strapped in there. I don't really get to do a physical pace, but mentally, I'm pacing in there. I'm kind of thinking through all my different scenarios that I would think of if I was standing there and I'm radioing the guys, 'What's it look like?'
"And I have the advantage of having tuned to other places that time. So I can say, 'Does it look like Brainerd, or does it look like Topeka?' And they'd say, 'Oh, it looks more like Topeka did.' So, then, I could make a move. 'All right, put five-two in there, slow this down.'
"It was fun, it was pretty exciting. I hope I get to do that someday."