2023 NHRA U.S. NATIONALS - PRO MOD NOTEBOOK
The Dodge Power Brokers NHRA U.S. Nationals hasn’t always been too kind to Kris Thorne. Three years ago at the “Big Go,” Thorne suffered a terrifying crash that forced him out of competition for nearly a year. Last year, Thorne made it to the final at Indy but suffered heartbreak when he turned on the red light by seven thousandths of a second, handing the win to Lyle Barnett.
The reigning Fuel Tech NHRA Pro Mod Champion found redemption at this year’s U.S. Nationals as he used two holeshots in eliminations, including one in the final round against his teammate Justin Bond, to score his first-ever U.S. Nationals title.
“There is no other race in the world I’d rather turn it around (than Indy),” Thorne said. “I’m super excited we were finally able to conquer this one. I’ve been upside down here, I’ve been on fire here, I’ve torn everything up I’ve owned here. This was emotional and great. If I went out today, this is the last race I would ever want to win – the U.S. Nationals, the biggest one.”
Thorne, at the wheel of the centrifugal supercharged Camaro, did not have the quickest car this weekend, only qualifying in the No. 8 position, but the champ found a way to win. Thorne had a solo in the opening round, beating Jerico Balduf, who could not get the car into reverse after the burnout. Thorne blasted the quarter-mile with a strong 5.811 at over 247 miles per hour to set up a main event matchup between himself and No. 1 qualifier, “Tricky Rickie” Smith.
Thorne seemed to be at a performance disadvantage, as Smith was one of only five drivers to have dipped into the 5.70s all weekend. However, Thorne stepped up in round two and added his name to the list, running a 5.788 at 249. But it would be the reaction time that won the Bahrain 1 driver that race, as Smith outran Thorne with a 5.761 at 251, but Thorne’s psychic (.019) reaction time to Smith’s (.081) got him the win over the No. 1 qualifier on a holeshot, ending what could be Smith’s final run at Indy.
In the semifinals, Thorne cut another fantastic light with a (.021) reaction time and dipped into the 5.70s once again, laying down a 5.798 at 247 to eliminate Stan Shelton, who turned on the redlight, handing Thorne an automatic berth into finals at the start.
The final round of Pro Mod at the 69th running of the NHRA U.S. Nationals featured an all-Bahrain 1 racing final, as reigning champion Kris Thorne in the ProCharger, squared off against the driver with the most wins in the class this season and held the points lead for much of the year Justin Bond campaigning the screw blower.
Bond defeated Mason Wright in round one with a 5.800 at 246, but his second-round performance was even more impressive as he laid down low elapsed time of eliminations with a 5.766 at 247 to take out Billy Banaka. A 5.786 at 248 by Bond in the semis was enough to edge out Mike Castellana’s 5.806 at 249, as Bond’s winlight guaranteed a win for Bahrain 1 at the U.S. Nationals as two of their drivers were in the finals. The only question left was, which driver would it be?
To say the final round between Thorne and Bond was an epic battle would be an understatement. Both drivers got off the line cleanly and were side by side down the quarter-mile, putting on a show. Bond ran a stellar 5.777 at 246, outrunning Thorne by nearly five-hundredths of a second, who ran a 5.827 at 248. However, just like in the previous three rounds, Thorne’s starting line prowess was the key, as Thorne’s (.017) reaction time to Bond’s (.073) was just enough to give Thorne the win on a holeshot.
“I was on a mission this year,” Thorne said. “We’ve had our fair share of ups and downs, but I was able to conquer this one, and it means a lot.”
Not only does Thorne get his redemption at the U.S. Nationals, but the win also vaults the reigning Pro Mod champion into the points lead for the first time this season by twelve points over his teammate Justin Bond with only two races left to go in the season.
SUNDAY NOTEBOOK - THE ROAD TO THE CHAMPIONSHIP JUST GOT MORE INTERESTING
CHAMPIONSHIP BATTLE JUST GOT A WHOLE LOT INTERESTING - Billy Banaka pulled off the upset of the weekend in Pro Mod when he took down points leader and the most recent winner on tour, Jason Lee, in the opening round on a holeshot Sunday. Banaka cut a lightning-quick .015-second reaction time to Lee's .035 and held on all the way down the quarter-mile race course. Banaka stopped the clocks at 5.871 seconds, 243 mph to oust Lee's quicker 5.867, 243. Lee's first-round loss opens the door for the closest pursuers in the points -- Justin Bond, Kris Thorne, and Mike Castellana, all of whom won in their opening-round matchups Sunday afternoon.
Another upset in the first round of Pro Mod was No. 13 qualifier Stan Shelton taking out Norwalk winner and Brainerd runner-up, Jason Scruggs, on a holeshot. Shelton got a three-hundredths of a second advantage on the starting line and held on, running a 5.853 at 244 to Scruggs' 5.827, 247.
Top qualifier Rickie Smith laid down the run of the round as the only driver to dip into the 5.70s (5.789 at 250-plus mph) to take out Brazil's Sidnei Frigo (5.931, 240).
The return of "Stevie Fast" Jackson to racing was spoiled Sunday when the two-time U.S. Nationals champion fell victim to his own miscue with a redlight to hand a win to Mike Castellana. Castellana would have been tough to beat, anyway, as his .015 reaction, combined with a 5.850, 232 was better than Jackson's 5.880 at 244.
Other first-round winners included: Kris Thorne over Jerico Balduf; Khalid alBalooshi over Ken Quartuccio; Dmitry Samorukov over Manny Buginga; and Justin Bond over Mason Wright.
Eliminations conclude Monday.
HAPPY TO BE BACK - It's been nearly a year since "Stevie Fast" Jackson last raced in Pro Mod competition in the NHRA. But after a long and rigorous road to recovery following neck surgery during the offseason, the two-time NHRA Pro Mod kingpin made his return at Indy. He said he's beyond ecstatic to be back doing what he loves.
"The best part of it is seeing the fans, and spending time with the fans, and spending time with the people," Jackson said. "You sit on the sidelines for a long time, and it's not so much that you miss the competition -- although you do -- but the race fans out here are my family.
And getting to hang out with all the fans was absolutely the best part.
"Driving a race car feels good. It feels like I'm back where I'm supposed to be. Comfortable in the car, we made three decent laps in qualifying. We're still not as fast as we want to be, and we still got a cork in this thing somewhere, holding it back. ... But to be back and make your return at the "Big Go" at the US Nationals is special. And I'm very thankful to Sidnei Frigo and the Artivinco team for giving me the opportunity to come back in their second car here."
Jackson said his return to action Indy wasn't part of a long-range plan, but he's happy that's the way it worked out.
"Indy is always special for us," Jackson admitted. "So it wasn't circled in the beginning, but when we talked about fielding a second car and Sidnei asked me if I'd drive it for a race or two, I told him if we do that, I want to debut it in Indy. So, yeah, it's a special deal.
"I've run well here, and we've had some very emotional moments here. Not a lot of people can win one of these, and to win two of them is even harder. And when I speak at engagements, when I go to talk to kids at a fair, or when I go to talk to kids at a school, they announce me as a two-time U.S. Nationals champion even more than a two-time Pro Mod world champion. So it's a special deal to win one of these."
Jackson surprised everyone in the offseason when he announced he was teaming up with the Artivinco team and three-time Pro Mod national-event winner Sidnie Frigo. So far the partnership has been a work in progress, but Jackson knows the hard work will pay off soon.
"It's one of patience and grace," Jackson said. "When we took on the Artivinco project and began to run their team, I anticipated we would come and run exactly at the top, off the rip. When we ended last season, we were the quickest car in our class. In the last race of last season, we qualified No. 1. NHRA nailed us with the rule package over the offseason. We really struggled the first few races, and we're continuing to struggle.
"We're running okay, but we're not running where we need to be. I've brought on some help to try to figure out why this thing is not performing as well, but Sidnei has been very patient and very gracious in the transition of getting this thing running good. The whole plan of bringing two cars is not only to just have a spare car, but just to see if we're missing something that we just can't find. Sidnei and the Artivinco guys, Adriano, his wife, Daniela, their whole family accepted me with open arms. They've been patient when we failed, they're fun when we do good and win, Sidnei is a great driver, and the whole mission of this whole two-car team is to get him in championship form and get him running out front."
The two-time U.S. Nationals champion has had a pretty solid return to the driver's seat this weekend at the "Big Go." Jackson qualified his Artivinco Camaro in the No. 11 spot with a best of 5.835 at 248. He was excited to face Mike Castellana, who's driving Jackson's former Bahrain 1 Camaro.
"We're sitting over there in the lounge earlier, and I told Terry Coyle and Cord Collins, I said, 'I just want to write this down on paper in my log book, so that we understand,'" Jackson said prior to the duel with Castellana. "I've been out of competition for almost a year. I make my debut in a car I've never raced or driven until five days ago at the U.S. Nationals in Indy, and I'm racing [against] the car that I won two world championships in, and won the U.S. Nationals in, in the first round of competition. And you've got a legend -- the baddest blown alcohol tuner on the planet, Frank Manzo -- running it, a tremendous driver in Mike Castellana, and that's a pretty tough mountain to climb when you write it all down like that.
"We're going to need some luck today. The sun is out, the sun is a great equalizer. The track will be absolutely slippery and slimy. It's going to be 130 degrees, and you're going to have to tip-toe out there. You cannot give Mike Castellana anything on the starting line, and I know that. I've been behind on reaction time from where I used to be for the last couple of runs. I was (.049) in the last run, and Mike was (.037), so you can't give him a hundredth today. And some of that's just not making runs in a year. But we're going to stand on the gas, putting a new rack of pistons in the motor, and we got time to fix it after this one, so we're bringing our best horse to the starting line. And I told Sidnei when I agreed to drive this thing, 'You have to understand that I'm going to run it like it's mine, and we're going to give it everything it's got, and that's how we're going to approach it.'"
A big question surrounding Jackson's return was how he would feel physically in the racecar. He Jackon says he's pain-free, and that getting back behind the wheel has almost been like getting back on a bike -- you never forget it once you've learned.
"For two or three runs, I felt like I was behind the car," Jackson admitted. "The car moved around a little bit downtrack and I told the guys, 'It's a new car that we've never raced.' So not only is it me getting in it, but it's me getting in something and trying to sort it out, in really just one test session. So we went and tested for one day and then came to the U.S. Nationals. That's not a good recipe for success, but getting this thing was really, really last minute, really late. We worked all night. I worked 48 hours straight to get to Bowling Green to go test it. When we got to Bowling Green, I told the guys I hadn't been to bed since Friday and it was Monday. So it was a really tough push.
"After about three runs, I felt really comfortable in the car. The one thing that I said to the guys after the first test day [was], 'We made five runs and I didn't even really think about it until the next day, but I got up and my neck didn't hurt.' And I will say this is the first time in 10 years I have driven a Pro Mod five runs and not been in pain the next day. And pain is a weird thing. You don't realize you have it until it's not there anymore. And we made four rounds of qualifying here, I am back to 100%, I have zero pain, zero issue, comfortable in the car, mobility is good, and I'm ready to rock."
A SPECIAL WEEKEND FOR CASTELLANA - Since teaming up with the greatest Alcohol Funny Car racer in the history of the sport, 17-time champion Frank "Ace" Manzo, racing at Indy has become even more special for Pro Mod legend Mike Castellana.
An 11-time U.S. Nationals winner, Manzo always celebrates his Sept. 1 birthday during the event. That gave Castellana even more motivation to try and bring home a Wally for his legendary tuner.
"We would love to get a win for Frank," Castellana said. "Not only is it his birthday, it's his anniversary, as well, yesterday. We'd love to get a win for him and his wife this weekend, so we'll be doing our best all around."
Castellana and Manzo have celebrated in the Indy winner's circle before. After many years of trying for Castellana, Manzo tuned Castellena to his first U.S. Nationals victory back in 2019. Coincidentally enough, that win was the last win for Castellana on tour. The Muttontown, New York, native is 0-5 in his last five final-round appearances since then, so the driver of the famous Western Beef Camaro would love nothing more than to break that long drought at this year's running of drag racing's most iconic event.
"Oh, it would be great to get a win here," Castellana admitted. "We've been looking for a win all year, and if this is it, this would be a great one for us."
It's been a whirlwind of a season for Castellana. After a solid semifinal finish at the Pro Mod season opener in Gainesville, Castellana suffered an accident in a test session not long after and missed the 4-Wide Nationals at Charlotte.
Khalid alBalooshi loaned Castellana a car from the Bahrain 1 racing stable. Castellana returned at the next race in Chicago, and two races later he was back in the final round at the Thunder Valley Nationals, where he fell just short to reigning Pro Mod champ Kris Thorne. Castellana entered the first ever Pro Mod "Road to the Championship" in the No. 5 spot, gaining a position after the opening race in Brainerd.
Castellana has put together a solid performance this weekend in Indy, qualifying sixth with a 5.815 at over 248 miles per hour.
MAKING MOVES - It's safe to say Manny Buginga owns one of the best highlights in Pro Mod this season when he put on a staging duel for the ages against reigning NHRA Pro Mod champion Kris Thorne in the first round at the opening race of the season in Gainesville, Florida.
Unfortunately for Buginga, the show he put on at the Gatornationals, which lasted nearly three minutes and had the fans going berserk in the stands, cost him his long-time crew chief, Jamie Miller. The loss of one of the best and most respected tuners in the doorcar scene was a setback to Buginga and his entire team, but Buginga has taken it upon himself to rebuild his operation and get his team back on track and head in the right direction.
"Everybody needs to understand, after Gainesville, we had a regroup, losing a crew chief and losing some crew members," Buginga explained. "We bought a whole 'nother team. We put Jason Lee and Eric Gustafson in our other car, and they started doing very well. They actually won a race in Brainerd. And I mean, we qualified for every race and made it to the semis in Chicago. So I'm happy to rebuild a team, two teams at that. I mean, it's all the guys you surround yourself with is how good you're going to be at the end. So I'm very content."
Buginga, who's in his rookie season racing NHRA Pro Mod and a successful radial racer in his own right, not only added Lee, he tapped Todd Tutterow, one of the greatest doorslammer racers ever to fill in and drive his car when Buginga had other commitments.
It's a testament to Buginga for how he's kept his team afloat through so many changes. Buginga, who qualified ninth in the "Road to the Championship" in his rookie season, had a solid performance in his first crack at the U.S. Nationals. He qualified 12th, but lost in the opening round to Russia's Dmitry Samorukov.
"All the competition is tough," Buginga said. "You had 21 cars to compete for a 16-car field, and we qualified No. 12. So at the end of the day, they're all heavy hitters. The goal is to get a suitcase and send them backpacking. That's the goal. Get them back on the plane and send them back home."
For Buginga, just being a part of the conversation here at Indy is a dream come true.
"I'm super excited," he admitted. "Just to come to Indy and qualify, that's pretty rewarding. And doing it in the Pro Mod world with all these big tigers and sharks. It's amazing. Truly blessed to be here and have a great bunch of guys around me, Ty [Tutterow] and Todd, Greg, and my wife and kids. It's just a blessing.
"That's the one you put on the trophy shelf and say to your grandkids, 'Hey, we won Indy.' And that's just a prestigious Wally. If we can be lucky enough and smart enough to get it, that's just the one that you want to have."
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK - THE TRICKSTER'S LAST INDY HURRAH, BRACKET CAR BATMAN STYLE
"TRICKY RICKIE" SMITH LEADS LIKELY HIS LAST - Nobody knows exactly what drag racing legend Rickie Smith's plans are after this season, but by his own accounts, he's looking to hang it up at the end of the year.
Well, if this is the last time Smith is behind the wheel at the U.S. Nationals, he's certainly setting up to go out in grandiose style: He's the No. 1 qualifier in Pro Mod heading into eliminations.
Smith laid the hammer down Friday, recording two 5.70 passes. A 5.770 at over 253 miles per hour in the opening session placed him second. The driver of the lone nitrous oxide-boosted car in the field stepped up in the second stanza, powering to a stellar 5.754 and putting him on the pole. It's a slot he held throughout the remainder of qualifying.
"I don't get to run over here [NHRA] much this year, and I like to come over here and run good," Smith said. "I watched the weather coming in here, and we knew it was going to get hotter every day. So we pretty much knew [Friday night] was probably going to be the best time to set the low qualifier, and luckily, we made a really good run ... and got low qualifier."
Smith struggled to get the handle on Day Two of qualifying, but the two-time U.S. Nationals champion in Pro Mod knows what's needed to be the man to beat for the Wally.
"Today it's got pretty hot, and when that track gets really hot and greasy, it makes it really hard on a nitrous car to get down," he said of Saturday's runs. "So the problem is it's going to be hot tomorrow, and we're going to run the first round at three o'clock. That's going to be a tough call for me. I've got my hands full to get the car down the racetrack. I'm not really worried about who I run, I got to worry about myself going down the racetrack. If I can get the car down the racetrack, I probably can get by first round. So it's going to be a tough task tomorrow, when the track gets hot, for this nitrous car."
Even so, the King, N.C., native is enjoying the ride.
"It's a fun weekend so far for me," Smith said. "Coming up here, being No. 1 qualifier, and I'm trying to retire. And at least at the end of the year when I quit they can't say, 'Well, he quit because he couldn't be competitive.' I can be competitive. And you always need just a little luck or something on Sunday. So it just depends on how the luck goes [Sunday] and Monday, and we'll see where it goes. But I'm quitting on a really good note, I feel like.
"I come here 'cause I think I've got everything now. I've been trying to retire for four years, but I've got everything; deposits on it. I think I've got stuff sold the way I want to go. So good luck to these guys. I've had one hell of a career, 42 years almost for a living, and 50 years racing and 11 championships. There's nobody else other than John Force that's run this good this long and still be competitive and still can win races. So I'm tickled to death to go out the way I'm going out."
Smith will face off against Sidnei Frigo and the Artivinco racing team in the opening round of Sunday afternoon's eliminations.
Qualified in the No. 2 spot with probably the most consistently quick car on the property is Justin Bond, the leader in the class in wins this season with three. While many cars have struggled to get down Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park, the Bahrain 1 driver, who switched to the screw blower combination at the last race in Brainerd, made it to the finish line under power in all four of his qualifying attempts, and three of them were in the 5.70s. His best was a 5.766 at over 247 miles per hour that he ran in the opening round. Bond, who lost the points lead after the opening race of the "Road to the Championship" in Brainerd, looks to take it back by the end of the weekend. His first task is to oust Mason Wright in Round One.
Bond's Bahrain 1 teammate, Khalid alBalooshi, occupies the No. 3 position heading into race day. After struggling in the first session on Friday, alBalooshi bounced back with three consecutive strong runs. His best pass came in Q2 when he thundered the quarter mile at 5.776 at more than 250. AlBalooshi will have a tough duel out of the gate as he squares off against one of the best outlaw Pro Mod racers in Ken Quartuccio.
The "Mississippi Missile," Jason Scruggs, struggled Friday, but came back strong on Saturday and set low E.T. in both rounds. His 5.776 at 250 in the final session placed him fourth overall and he'll have a date with Stan Shelton in the opening round.
Dmitry Samorukov of Moscow, Russia, was the final driver to qualify for the 16-car field. Samorukov, who had a consistent car in qualifying, ran a 5.792 at 245 in Q1 to place him No. 5. Samorukov will match up against Manny Buginga in Round One as he looks to keep his championship hopes alive.
Mike Castellana vs. Steve Jackson, Jason Lee vs. Billy Banaka, and Kris Thorne vs. Jerico Balduf are the rest of the first-round matchups in Pro Mod at the U.S. Nationals.
Three "Road to the Championship" drivers, J.R. Gray, Kevin Rivenbark and Mike Thielen, failed to make the field at Indy, and Dwayne Wolfe and Nick Januik also missed the cut.
FRESH NEW LOOK IN INDY - It's not uncommon to see drivers and teams bring out special new wraps and paint schemes to show off at the NHRA U.S. Nationals. Samorukov decided to get in on the fun and do just that at his first ever appearance driving at the "Big Go."
"For me, Indy is the greatest event," Samorukov said. "It's very important that my car celebrated with me this weekend."
The vibrant new scheme he's running this weekend is the same scheme he dons on his Dodge Viper DT Pro Mod that he races in his home country. He's won six championships in the Russian Drag Racing Community.
"The symbol of the RDRC is an oven, but this oven is a little bit different," he said. "It's a little angry oven, but happy, I think."
Samorukov is running his first full season of NHRA competition and is the first from his country to do so. Samorukov has always had dreams of coming to America and racing on the big stage with the best in the world. But he also wants to give something back to the RDRC and be an inspiration to others back home.
"I don't want to just race, I want to build something," Samorukov explained. "So what I'm doing in Russia is building the community, like Don Schumacher, like John Force has done over here. So I'm trying to build that in Russia and also develop as a driver myself over here in NHRA.
"And everything we learn over here in NHRA, when we go testing, wherever it might be, we take all that knowledge and put it in the Russian drag race scene. We can see maybe the first couple years in Russia, they didn't have a guy who goes around and says, 'It's your turn to drive now.' But now, we see, 'Oh, everyone in NHRA has it. Maybe we should have it, too, in Russia.' And then, we correct things in Russia and try to make it as good as possible -- so, trying to build something bigger maybe."
Samorukov advanced to the semifinals at the Thunder Valley Nationals in Bristol and has earned a spot in the first Pro Mod "Road to the Championship," where he qualified a career-high second in the playoff opener in Brainerd, Minnesota.
Samorukov thanked Pro Mod legend Mike Janis, his team, and crew chief Adam Flamholc for giving him his shot. With the recent performance from the team over the last few races, Samorukov believes he could be knocking on the door for a win, perhaps as early as Monday.
"At the start of the season, I didn't think it was possible," Samorukov said. "But after Bristol and Norwalk, I'm 100 percent sure we have the team to win."
THE BATMAN MOBILE IS A BRACKET CAR AT THE U.S. NATIONALS - Jerico Balduf, at the wheel of the Batman-themed '69 Chevelle, has a consistent racecar heading into opening round of eliminations slated for Sunday afternoon. All four of Balduf's qualifying runs were in the low to high 5.80-second range, topped by a 5.825 at over 247 miles per hour pass.
"I'm pretty happy with that," Balduf said. "I wish it was a little quicker, but with the weather and the conditions, the track's so hot, it's greasy, there's a lot of cars not going down every run, and a lot of people are struggling. We've been making lap after lap after lap, which is kind of cool, actually. And I think since it's getting hotter, especially from yesterday, that's what it's going to take is just go A to B, at a decent pace, anyway. But it's working out."
Balduf, who qualified ninth on the weekend, looks to play spoiler as he has a date slated with reigning Fuel Tech Pro Mod champion Kris Thorne in the first round.
"Well, it sucks because we traveled 1,200 miles to race a guy that lives 20 miles away from you," Balduf said. "I mean, we're longtime friends. They've got it going on. They know what they're doing, and I think they've been watching us for the past couple of months making good laps, and they know that I ain't going to be a pushover."
Balduf certainly gained an Indy memory during his second run on Friday while trying to get set up for the Snowbird Nationals, one of the biggest outlaw Pro Mod races later in the year in Bradenton, Florida.
"It was crazy because we ran Q2, and I think my time sheet said 5:33 [p.m.] is the time we ran," Balduf explained. "So I mean, I had a half hour, but when I got stopped on the return road, the transmission locked up. So we're scrambling, trying to get the thing to move and trying to push it back. We sent people to get tools. We've got to pull the drive shafts out of the car on the return road. Meanwhile, I'm trying to punch numbers and get in the Snowbirds. And right as it turned six o'clock, I got in, and I thought it was pretty neat and showed dedication."
Now that Balduf is assured he will be racing at the Snowbirds and qualified solidly at the U.S. Nationals, he now turns his attention to trying to win the biggest drag race in the world. If he's able to pull it off, it'll be a dream come true.
"As my first0ever win, that would be ... I couldn't explain it," Balduf said. "That would be something else. That would be incredible. You probably couldn't even talk to me afterward. I'd be dumbfounded for the next two hours. But that would be crazy."
LOOKING FOR A LITTLE INDY REVENGE - One year ago, Kris Thorne came just seven-thousandths of a second away from adding his name to the list of Indy. That's how little he prematurely left the starting line in the final round and handed the win to Lyle Barnett.
Thorne made up for the Indy letdown by going on to win the 2022 NHRA Pro Mod championship. Now, one year later, he's back looking to redeem himself and finally earn Indy glory.
"It sucks, last year to go to a final and red-light by seven thou," Thorne said. "But ... you can't come into this race looking at the past, we just gotta drive forward. We've got a lot of drive behind us with this one. I've never won the U.S. Nationals before and would love to win it.
"We seem to be struggling a little bit this weekend. The NHRA put some weight on us, about 40 pounds a race or two ago. It's a good amount, and it really seems to be hurting the combo this weekend. I think the best-qualified ProCharger combo out here is fifth or sixth, so we're a little behind, but we'll see if we can get through it and park this thing in the winner's circle."
Thorne qualified eight for eliminations. His Bahrain 1 teammates Justin Bond and Khalid alBalooshi, who both are running the screw blower, with Bond switching from the ProCharger to the screw blower following the race in Norwalk, both have run in the 5.70s this weekend. Does Thorne plan to switch to the screw blower anytime soon?
"We're all a team, so we work well together," Thorne said. "The screw's the new horse out here, so I'm happy to see those guys jump on and run away with it.
"It's possible. I mean, you never say never."
Nonetheless, it's been a solid title defense for the 2022 NHRA champion. He captured a win at the Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol (Tenn.) Dragway earlier in the season and entered the "Road to the Championship" in the No. 2 spot. He trails leader Jason Lee by 29 points entering the U.S. Nationals.
"It's been phenomenal," Thorne said of the Bahrain 1 operation. "We can't thank those guys enough. Without those guys, we wouldn't be out here this year, so hats off to those guys. We really appreciate them."
WANTING TO TASTE INDY MAGIC ONCE AGAIN - Six years ago, Sidnei Frigo accomplished what many drivers dream of doing, and that's winning the U.S. Nationals. He has gone on to win two more times, and the Brazilian native would love nothing more than to experience what it's like holding the Indy trophy once again.
"I won this race six years ago, and it's a dream," Frigo said. "All the best guys in the world are here. I love this place."
It's been a tough 2023 season so far for Frigo and his Artivinco racing team, as his best finish was a semifinal appearance in Chicago. However, Frigo is confident hard work and the addition of two-time NHRA Fuel Tech Pro Mod world champion Stevie "Fast" Jackson has his car heading in the right direction.
"Everything is new. The team is new," he said. "My car is the '69 (Chevelle). It's not a new car, but we've changed everything, and it's a new combination. The car is getting better and better, and I hope we win at least one race this year and go for it next season.
"Steve is a nice guy. He's doing a great job. The whole team is really good, and I'm very happy with it."
ON THE BIG STAGE - Billy Banaka has raced at the hallowed grounds of Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park before in the past, but never at the U.S. Nationals. That changed this weekend, and the driver of the '69 Camaro could not be more excited about the opportunity.
"I've been here before with the NMCA but not NHRA, and this is the big daddy of them all," Banaka said. "I think it's cool to be here and so far to qualify, that's a fear in itself. Hopefully I can do well."
Banaka qualified 10th with a best pass of 5.830 at 247-plus in Q2.
Banaka could play a key role in the championship fight as well, as he takes on Pro Mod points leader Jason Lee in the opening round. If he can get past that foe, he can turn his attention more fully on an Indy victory.
"You know, it's definitely something that's on my bucket list," Banaka admitted. "But we just have to get there and take a round at a time."
Banaka is competing in NHRA action on a part-time basis, but has already proven he can hang with the best in the class. When he faced reigning Pro Mod champ Kris Thorne in the first round at Brainerd two weeks, he cut a lightning-quick .004-second reaction time, but Thorne left at .008 and picked up the win light.
"Just to be able to qualify like I have in every event that I've attended is a feat in itself, especially with all the experienced and great racers that are out here," Banaka said. "You know, I didn't really expect, in the beginning, that I would qualify. I was hoping I could, but there will be several races where there are other racers that have been racing a lot longer than I have that didn't even qualify. I have to contribute that to Pro Line, Brandon, Eric Dillard, and Wesley Jones for helping me.
"My first-round win was Chicago. It was a tough win because I hurt a motor, and I knew I hurt it and didn't get out of it. But I knew it was my first round win. So, again, hopefully, those'll come as well with time and experience."
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK - IT'S THE TRICKSTER'S WORLD AND EVERYONE IS LIVING IN IT
SHOWING THEM HOW IT'S DONE - Piloting the lone nitrous oxide-boosted car in the field, Pro Mod legend "Tricky Rickie" Smith went to the top of the charts during Friday qualifying, thundering down the quarter-mile in the second session with a 5.754 at over 253 miles per hour. The King, N.C., native improved on the 5.77 he ran in the opening session.
LIKE I NEVER EVEN LEFT - After nearly a year on the sidelines due to off-season neck surgery, fan favorite "Stevie Fast" Jackson returned to the driver's seat at the U.S. Nationals. Jackson also made his debut behind the wheel with the newly aligned Killer Time and Artivinco racing team and recorded two respectable passes during Friday qualifying. The two-time Pro Mod champion opened up qualifying with a 6.02 at 244, but Jackson stepped up big time in Q2, running a solid 5.835 at 248 to place him No. 10 after Day One.
"SCREW" IT - The Bahrain 1 teammates of Justin Bond and Khalid al Balooshi continued to impress with their random screw-blown combinations as Bond finished the first day of qualifying in the No. 2 slot with a 5.766 at over 247 while Balooshi is right behind him in third with a 5.776 at over 250.
THERE'S A NEW SHERIFF IN TOWN - Jason Lee enters this weekend's 59th annual Dodge Power Brokers NHRA U.S. Nationals on a high after hitting the jackpot two weeks ago in Brainerd, Minn. That's when he not only captured his first career national-event win in NHRA Pro Mod, but also took over the points lead in the process.
"We couldn't be more excited," Lee said. "It puts us in a real good spot here. We've got rules stacked against us for the final three races, so we're just going to give them hell and hope that a lot of luck keeps taking over like it did in Brainerd.
"It was great, but it was really great for the guys. The guys that put the work in at the shop, and the guys that put the work in at the track. You want to give them something back. That's what this was really all about for me.
"We win as a team, we lose as a team, and it was a great team win. We enjoyed it for the two weeks we had off, and now you're only as good as what you've done lately, so we're starting over today."
Prior to the win, Lee, at the wheel of his supercharged Coast Packing Company 2018 Camaro, has enjoyed a solid 2023 season, advancing to the finals in his first race at the Charlotte 4-Wide, then backing that up by qualifying No. 1 at the following race in Joliet, Illinois. Lee entered the "Road to the Championship" in Brainerd as the No. 4 seed, but now that he sits at the top after his impressive victory, he very well knows that the target is firmly on his back.
However, Lee is more than up for the challenge as his resume in door-slammer racing speaks for itself, having won championships in other series like NMRA and NMCA (and he's the reigning Radial vs. the World champion). With a stacked Pro Mod field now breathing down his neck, Lee hopes to use the experience he's gained in winning in other series to help him as he makes an all-out assault on claiming the 2023 Pro Mod title.
"I think it all just prepares you mentally," Lee said. "I've come from behind in those series to win the championship, and I've been on top going into the final few races and had to protect the championship, and everybody's coming for you. They want to bust your ass because you're in the lead. You know that. But again, if you keep that level head and you attack it round by round, and you're attacking just the track, you're not paying attention to your competitor, you're not paying attention to all the outside noise, all that stuff, and going through it in the past I think will hopefully prepare us for the future.
"We're going to give it hell, and then we're going to obviously run it 110% like we always do, and we'll see what happens."
LIVING ON THE EDGE - You would think a combination and a racecar that led you to a career-high three wins in a single season and the points lead heading into the inaugural "Road to the Championship, Pro Mod's new playoff format, you would continue to do what led you to that success.
Well, Justin Bond completely threw that notion right out of the window when he turned in his ProCharger '69 Camaro that dominated the regular season for a new set of wheels at the opening race of the Pro Mod playoffs in Brainerd two weeks ago. Not only did the Bahrain 1 driver make that move, he also switched to an new screw-blown combo, mirroring his Baharin 1 teammate Khalid al Balooshi.
"How I look at it to be super honest, is with the points reset, I figured everything started all over, so we could just start all over, " Bond explained. "We've been running the screw blower combination for almost a year now with Khalid al Balooshi's car, and we ran it in the Middle East all winter long, and I raced a screw blower car on the 4th of July weekend in Canada. Obviously with a different setup, but I just didn't feel that it was going to put us that far backward, and I thought that we would overcome the setbacks by having double the data with double the cars.
"Every time we make a run, most people are making one run. We're making two runs because we have two cars, and our cars are set up identically. We don't always run the same tune-ups, but the theory behind it all is they're the same."
Seemingly the favorite to win the championship heading into the first Pro Mod postseason, Bond hit a bump on the road when for the first time this season he lost the points lead at Brainerd, falling in the second round of competition.
Bond's brand new hot rod showed a lot of promise in Brainerd, as he left with low e.t. of eliminations with 5.693 that he ran in the opening round. Al Balooshi set top speed of the meet at over 251 miles per hour and laid down the second-quickest time in eliminations with a 5.698.
"We're pretty happy with our performance," Bond admitted. "We're always looking for more, we're always working hard, and I just think that right now it's anybody's game out there. Anybody can win this thing."
Bond believes the new "Road to the Championship" has been a positive for the Pro Mod class, and that everyone is playing in the same sandbox.
"I think that nobody's ever going to like it when you go into the Countdown in the lead," Bond said. "If you were to go talk to Dallas Glenn in Pro Stock, he ain't going to like it, either. But you know what? One day you won't be Justin Bond or Dallas Glenn, and you'll keep going because there's a renewal of chance.
"If we don't have the Countdown, I've been running and involved with Pro Mod since 2016 and the car count would be dwindling after the US Nationals. I think the car count like this will not be over until Las Vegas -- unless Jason Lee or somebody wins the next three races in a row, it will not be over. Vegas is points and a half, and right now there are three of us that are all within, I don't know, 25 points or something of first place. It's anybody's game out here. That's the cool part about it is you're racing all year long. Every race matters, and every round matters. It's a good deal. That's why we did it -- to keep people intrigued, keep people interested, and be relevant."
While the U.S. Nationals has not been the kindest to Bond in the past, the regular-season champ is on a mission to finally break through at the "Big Go" and retake the points lead.
"I'm pretty jacked up," Bond admitted. "This track's never been great to me, so hopefully I can change that this weekend. I think everybody's got to remember there's 19 or 20 or 21 cars here, whatever. You still have to qualify, and you can't talk about racing until you get the qualifying done and then the qualifying happens and it's going to be hot out here, and this time of the year people make mistakes. So, I have to not make mistakes and hopefully, people against me make mistakes. That's the name of this game."
KEEPING UP THE MOMENTUM - The hottest driver in Pro Mod right now has to be the "Mississippi Missile," Jason Scruggs. Scruggs turned everyone's head in the class when he won in his season debut at Norwalk in dominating fashion, qualifying No. 1 and running the table as he went on to capture his first career national-event win in NHRA Pro Mod.
Scruggs followed that performance up with a runner-up finish at the following race in Brainerd. Where might Scruggs be if he had run the full schedule in 2023?
"Some of those races early in the year, we were farming real hard, so it's hard for me to leave," Scruggs said. "It's just hard for us to go racing that much, especially the races that are back-to-back. They're a busy season for us, so I know realistically that it's hard for me to do that, so I don't read too much into it. We just want to come out here, have a good time, and run good. Let them know we're here."
Scruggs, a legend in doorslammer racing, brings a lot of confidence when he straps in. That said, the rapid success he's experienced over the past two races surprised him.
"We had tested a few passes before we got to Norwalk, and we looked like we'd never raced before," Scruggs said. "So we got to Norwalk and then we couldn't do anything wrong. We tried to screw it up, but we just couldn't. It was just our weekend. You have a weekend like that every now and then.
"But, yeah, it felt good as my first NHRA race win. If you added all of our races last few years together, we probably hadn't been about 15 races. So it felt good to get the first win and to come out and qualify No. 1 and run well. And we didn't luck into it. That even felt better, so that was good.
"Brainerd, it wasn't even on our schedule to go, but I heard it was a neat place and we're glad we went. Everybody needs to go to Brainerd at least once. The zoo and all that stuff, it's crazy up there. So we had fun there. We almost pulled it off, but we weren't really that dominant, but we ran pretty good there, too."
While Scruggs has had a lot of his success outside of the NHRA, the farmer still knows the importance and magnitude of racing and winning the U.S. Nationals, and hopes his winning ways will continue at NHRA's grandest event.
"If you could pick one to win, this is the one," Scruggs said. "So, everybody gets another level when they come here. Just the history and the atmosphere, and so yeah, we're stoked. We want to do good. We've got a good car, we/ve got a good chance, but there's a lot of good cars out here, and as tough as this racing is and the way everybody is so good on the tree, you just gotta have that break or two go your way if it's your day, and hopefully we'll get that this weekend. Whoever wins this race will have to have that."
THIS ONES JUST DIFFERENT - Ken Quartuccio has attained a ton of success in the outlaw Pro Mod scene, with championships, race wins, and records. But despite all the accomplishments, Quartuccio still understands the magnitude of racing at Indy.
"You can't even put it into words," Quartuccio admitted. "This place is awe-inspiring on how incredibly big this whole event is. I've never raced my whole life in an event that was like this. So to even wrap your mind around winning this race, at this point, I'm going to be happy to qualify and look respectable because the class has such good racers in it right now. I mean, that's my short-term goal, is to qualify."
Quartuccio is not behind the wheel of the beautiful '55 Chevy he debuted in Norwalk for NHRA competition earlier this season, which won the best appearing car. This weekend, he's driving the Scott Tidwell-owned '69 Camaro. And while his short-term goal is to qualify for the "Big Go" with 20-plus cars on the property, the competitor in Quartuccio still wants to go out and hurt some feelings and ultimately win.
"It takes so much time and so much sacrifice from everyone," Quartuccio said. Tim and I do not want to come out here just to say, 'Oh, we qualified,' or just to say 'We're running okay.' I want to win. I mean, that's what drives me. It's what always drives me, and that's what drives Tim."
Quartuccio is just one of the long list of big-time names trying to obtain the U.S. Nationals trophy. He plans to make his presence fully known in the NHRA next season as he looks to run the full slate with the '55 Chevy. He believes this car is a step in the right direction for Pro Mod.
"So the '55 deal is very special to me," Quartuccio said. "From Tim Wallace, Lori Wallace, Jamie Miller, all our guys, that's our plan. When Tim and I made the deal to race to get together, it became a great friendship between all of us. My focus this year was to finish PDRA Pro Boost with my car and then pick and choose some races to do with his car this year; gear up for next year. Our goal 100 percent is to run the whole 10-race season in NHRA next year with the '55. We just need time to get to the track.
"A little incident has come up where we tried testing it twice, and it got rained out and stuff like that. So once we can just put some time into it, which I'm hoping to do in the next couple of weeks, I believe that that body and that car is very important to Pro Mod racing because we gotta get away from the cookie-cutter-style cars. And believe me, I love the '69 Camaro Pro Mods more than anything, but that car is important, and it needs to get out here."
SCRATCHING THAT INDY ITCH - Khalid al Balooshi has enjoyed a very successful Pro Mod career. Add on a short stint driving and winning in NHRA's top-class Top Fuel eliminator, Balooshi has accomplished a ton. However, one thing that has eluded him is winning Indy.
"If you want to ask me what's left for me to do or what's my dream, it's to win the U.S. Nationals," Balooshi admitted. "Before I came to any NHRA race or any race in the United States of America, it's always been my dream to come and win Indy. I don't know. I've been close a couple of times. I've been to the semis here in Top Fuel one time and never got it done. But hopefully, this year will be the year to go win the U.S. Nationals or at least do some things that will be a good memory for me at U.S. Nationals."
With 23 Pro Mod cars competing this weekend, Balooshi knows that before he can even think about winning the biggest and most prestigious drag race in the world, first he must qualify for the 16-car eliminator field.
"If you see all the names, there will be a badass team and some badass names that will not be in the show," Balooshi said. "But this is how every sport should be, you know what I mean?"
Ironically, Balooshi was one of those badass drivers who failed to make the show at last year's U.S. Nationals as he failed to qualify.
But despite losing on a holeshot in the opening round at Brainerd two weeks ago, Balooshi enters this year's "Big Go" with a little momentum and a strong racecar. He qualified No. 1 at Brainerd and left with top speed of the meet at over 251 miles per hour. He racked up the second-quickest run in eliminations at 5.698, which he ran in his opening-round loss.
Switching, along with teammate Justin Bond, to a screw-blown car for Indy is something al Balooshi thinks will be beneficial to his team.
"I think this is the best move," al Balooshi admitted. "We both have the same combo and have the same stuff in the car, and I think it's going to help us down the road to learn a lot. We're going to develop a lot of data and test stuff in one car, and if we like it right away, we're going to switch it to another car. I think this stuff is going to help our program keep moving forward."
Balooshi hopes the move will ultimately give him a better shot at achieving his ultimate goal of winning the U.S. Nationals.