2023 NHRA U.S. NATIONALS - TOP FUEL NOTEBOOK
After four of five qualifying attempts at the Dodge Power Brokers NHRA U.S. Nationals, defending race winner Antron Brown sat on the outside of the qualified field looking in.
Brown’s weekend-best pass was only good enough for 17th on the 16-car ladder, leaving him with one final attempt to make the field and defend his U.S. Nationals victory.
As fate would have it, his hail mary lap in his fifth and final attempt was just enough to sneak into the field in the 15th spot, a heart-stopping moment he would use as a rallying cry to steer his Matco Tools dragster to a stunning victory Monday in the 69th running of the U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park.
“This is one of those getting dirty (wins),” Brown said. “We went through all of the trials and tribulations, and that’s what makes this win so special. We got thrown a curveball, a couple of them, actually. And the thing is, we just stood at that plate. We were down and out. We had two strikes, bases loaded. It was a full count. And when that thing came up in that qualifying session, we just hit an RBI and brought two people in; that’s what it felt like.
“Through all of the agony, through all of the pain, through all of the stuff that we went through in qualifying, the only one that’s got ice in his veins is (Mark) Oswald. He never gets down. He was just like, ‘We’re just going to have to do it.’ You get frustrated because you want to do so well, and coming off of Brainerd and the momentum we had coming in, we were like, “We’re going to be alright.’ It took an entire team effort to get it done today.”
Ironically, that 3.806-second run on Sunday during Q5 felt like an eternity to Brown as he described the agony of not being in the field at the U.S. Nationals heading into the final round of qualifying.
“We thought we put something in that we tested at Brainerd that was going to be right, but when we got here, it didn’t want no part of it,” Brown explained. “We had to change one disc in our pack and get through this race, and (the team) said, ‘We’re going to put it on Q3 at Brainerd where it was hot and it should go 80 flat.’ When I left the starting line, that light took a long time to come up. When I hit the gas pedal, I felt the engine go up and the car took off. When I got to 300 feet, I was like, ‘Stay hooked up, baby, stay hooked up.’
“That was the longest 3.8-second run of my entire life. It felt like I was in it for 15 seconds, and when the 3.80 popped on the board, I was relieved. And then once I found out that we had one of the fastest runs of the session, I thought, ‘We’re going to be fine on race day.’”
From the bottom of the ladder, Brown navigated a gauntlet of former champions and the winningest driver on the NHRA tour in 2023 to collect his fifth overall victory at the U.S. Nationals and third in Top Fuel, winning the sport’s biggest race in its premier class in 2011 and again last season.
“My hat goes off to my team because they had persistence to beat all the resistance this weekend,” Brown said. “They never quit, they never stopped. And when I got in that car, I just blocked everything out, and I stood in there like Ray Charles. I kept my head down and just kept on hitting it hard, trying to stay focused on keeping the car straight. It’s one of those weekends where we just never quit. And if you want to win the U.S. Nationals, that’s what you have to do.”
Brown powered to his third win of the season in a tremendous contest against Steve Torrence. The two drivers left with near-identical reaction times before Brown simply pulled away in his Toyota-backed dragster to record a 3.779-second pass at 328.54 miles per hour, his second-best lap of the weekend. Torrence crossed the stripe with an equally stout 3.870 at 327.43 mph in his Capco Contractors machine, coming mere inches from earning his third trophy at the granddaddy of them all.
The win was the 74th of Brown’s career and his second straight after winning at Brainerd two weeks prior.
“Sometimes you have a weekend like we did in Brainerd where we couldn’t do no wrong, and then here everything that we thought we were doing right, it was wrong,” Brown said. “So we figured, ‘Hey, you know what? This package here, that’s not happening, it’s not working,’ and we just had to make the changes. People don’t realize how close these cars are from going down the track and not going down the track. One clutch disc, taking it out and putting another one in, made the difference. Then, on race day, we made another change, and it worked out good all day long. It’s one of those deals where you’ve got to have that faith and go with it.”
Torrence was far from Brown’s toughest opponent on Monday as the three-time NHRA champion also faced off against six-time race winner on the NHRA tour this season, Justin Ashley, and defending class champion Brittany Force.
While Brown was relieved just to make the field, his consolation prize was a round one matchup against Force in a race that looked like it was going to go down to the wire. Both drivers were on a run until the engine in Force’s machine expired with a fiery concussion just past the midway point, allowing Brown to cruise to the win with this quickest pass of the entire weekend - a 3.749 at 320.05 mph.
“We get into the field and quickly realize tomorrow morning at 10 a.m. we’re racing Brittany Force with David Grubnic,” Brown said. “We tried to make the car run 70 flat, and it was on that run when it actually shot a spark plug out at 500 feet. We didn’t even make it to half-track, and then she had a mishap. When we got the winning 74, we’re like, ‘Oh, we can run with all of them.’”
Brown cleanly drove around Clay Millican in a round two win with a 3.791 before squaring off with the winningest driver on the NHRA tour in 2023, Justin Ashley.
In a thrilling finish for fans of old-school pedal fests, Ashley got away first but quickly lost traction as Brown cruised past. But just past the midway point of the 1,000-foot distance track, Brown too lost traction as both drivers limped across the line, with Brown winning on a pedestrian 4.924 to Ashley’s 6.569.
“When we got into the semis, we had that thing tuned up for Justin and Justin did too,” Brown said. “The track got a little tricky. We got the win, but I was pedaling, going sideways and I wanted to win so bad.”
Torrence reached his fourth final round of the season, and secured second in the Top Fuel regular season standings, with wins over Will Smith, Shawn Langdon and Doug Kalitta.
With as much momentum as anyone in the sport on their side, Brown now shifts his focus to the Countdown to the Championship, which begins in two weeks at Maple Grove Raceway, where suddenly his team is one of the hottest on the entire tour.
“Before we got to this race or even Brainerd, I think we went to four final rounds, and we lost to Justin twice in final rounds that could’ve gone either way,” Brown said. “That team is on fire. That’s definitely a team to beat for the championship this year, so we’ve all got our work cut out for us. But I know for sure that our team is deadly. If we just keep up and keep working like we are, we have the best chances of anybody in making it happen.
“With Brian Corradi and Mark Oswald, this whole team, we’re just getting stronger. And the longer we go, the more we will fine tune it, the better we will get.” - Larry Crum
SUNDAY NOTEBOOK - TORCH PASSING IN ZIZZO CAMP; MASSEY, DAKIN SHUN ‘BIG-TIME;’ NEXT-GEN SALINAS SET TO LAUNCH HER TOP FUEL ADVENTURE
ZIZZO TEAM UNDERGOES CHANGES – For years, Top Fuel team owner Tony Zizzo and driver son T.J. operated their prosperous auto body and paint shop in the Chicago suburb of Lincolnshire, Ill., and maintained their Rust-Oleum Dragster with a close-knit, long-bonded team of crew members.
In their season debut in May at Joliet, Ill., the Zizzo team scored a semifinal finish – thanks, they said, to fresh equipment and “some of the best parts [the car] ever has had.” But they shook up the status quo in time for this weekend’s Dodge Power Brokers U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park.
A press release said the Zizzos “needed to invest in building a race team. With the support of his family, his team and long-time partners, particularly Rust-Oleum, Zizzo and his team crafted a race crew that maximizes their overall competitiveness.”
Tony Zizzo was a bit more direct: “We all started drag racing, we were all 20, 30, 40 years old. Now we're all 60, 70 and beyond. So, what we had to do is get some new faces around there with some muscles. Like our bottom-end guy, he can't even make it [this weekend]. He had surgery. The other cylinder guy, Rick, had surgery. So, we've got three or four of the [former] NAPA[-sponsored car] employees here. Remember Rahn Tobler's people? Well, Rahn Tobler left NAPA, and he took the crew with him. Three or four of them were driving Amazon trucks or whatever. So we hired them for this weekend and maybe the rest of the year to help us out in the car. Our guys are a little bit sick and stuff. They can't lift. You know, the younger guys used to lift cylinder heads up and throw them around and stuff, but no, these guys can't do that anymore. So we've got different people from different teams.”
Longtime crew chief Mike Kern – busy in his own non-racing life as an engineering technician at the Advanced Powertrain Research Facility at Argonne National Laboratory – remains the crew chief.
“Mike is our crew chief, and I hired Rahn Tobler as the assistant crew chief. And Dustin Heim, who used to be the assistant crew chief [on Ron Capps’] NAPA Funny Car, is on our team now. Dustin Heim, he's now helping us do the bottom end on the car. He helps us on weekends. We fly him in, and he helps us on the car. And the good news about him is he can do anything on the car, so, whatever we need him for, he's there. And he's got some arms, he can lift heads and do whatever he's got to do. I can't lift that anymore,” the elder Zizzo said. “We did move some people around. It's worked out better for us.
“We were used to the same people. Everybody did the same job, and we were very successful at it. But health-wise, we needed some new blood, and that's what we got,” he said. “So, we're going to build a team, and it'll be just as good. We built a new car and a new Schumacher car. Half the guys are Schumacher people, so they know the car better than we do. So, hopefully it'll work out for us.”
So far it has. T.J. Zizzo began qualifying by grabbing the No. 7 spot in the tentative line-up, six-tenths of a second behind the fifth-place team. And that’s where he stayed through two more Saturday sessions, and that's where he ended up in the final qualifying order.
This mix of crew members joined the Zizzo/Rust Oleum team following the Joliet race.
“The original crew, when we built the car, came testing at Indy with us. We did really well in testing and went right to Joliet and did very well there. Then after that, everybody started getting sick, sick to the point where I tell them to stay away because I don't need anybody around here that's not healthy. So, we got some new blood. It's new blood, but it's old blood of people that know what they're doing. It's ‘new-old blood.’ Half of these people know more than I do. They've been around just as long as I have, so it's OK,” Tony Zizzo said.
“You know what? I don't have to learn anything anymore. I forgot more than I learned, so I'm just hanging around. I'm trying to be a team owner. It's hard for me to be a team owner, because I like doing things. I like working. I'm acting as a team owner this weekend,” he said. “At home, I am the only crew member on the race car, so, I'm the one that does all the dirty work at home. I'm trying to enjoy myself now. I came here with my motorhome. I can sit in my motorhome at night-time and watch everybody work. When they all have to work until midnight, I'll be sleeping. I've never had that option in my life, ever.
“It's like retiring but really being active. An active retired person is what I am. That's how you try to stay young. Physically, mentally, you stay young. Physically, you're not young anymore. I'm older. I'm an older person that can't do what the younger person used to do,” Zizzo said. “I still drive my cars. I still have race cars I drive, too. I run outlaw dragsters, the nostalgia rear-engine dragster. But I find myself, reaction-time-wise, a lot worse than I used to be, and I never was really great at it. But because of the Top Fuel car, we don't have time to do as much as I want to.”
T.J. Zizzo has moved into more of a managerial role at both businesses. Said Dad, “I'm there working on it, but I don't actually do the paperwork part of it. I told my son, ‘I have great credit cards in my wallet. As soon as the credit cards stop working, I'll be talking to you. So keep my credit cards working.' That's the only advice I gave him in life. 'As long as my credit cards work, I'm OK. When they tell me the credit cards aren't good, then we have to talk.’
“Over the years, he's learned what I learned. And I forgot what I learned. So he reminds me of what I'm supposed to be doing. It's all right. I'm OK with all of the above. The business is running well. The race car business is doing really well. I'm passing the torch. But remember one important thing: I'm the one with the hair.”
T.J. Zizzo said a year or so ago, “For years, people have asked, ‘Why don’t you try to go full-time? Because I’ve got way too many other things going on. But I love it because I don’t have to worry about it every day. There’s a delight to that. To be able to go out and compete with the best of the best and have their respect is pretty bad-ass. That is like playing minor-league baseball and being able to go to the majors whenever the heck you want.”
And Tony Zizzo said he feels the same way about a full-time program: “I don't want it. We have the sponsorship to try to do it. But that means that half of these guys here this weekend are the NAPA guys and the other half work for me in the body shop. You take them away from the body shop, guess what? The body shop is not making me any money. So I'd rather not be the full-time car. We're known as the best of the part-time teams ever. That’s what they tell us. We're super part-timers, and our sponsor loves us for it. We do what they want.
These days Zizzo is running the Jr. Dragster program with teenage grandchildren Giana and Nick. ”The Jr. Dragster program is harder to do than the Top Fuel program is -- a lot of work, a lot of running around and parts and replacing things, the same as Top Fuel racing but on a smaller scale.” And the stakes in Jr. Dragster seem to be higher, he said: “It's getting to the point where when you go racing and somebody's got a better part than you, what are you going to do? You're going to buy that better part. I enjoy doing it with the grandkids. It brings a tear to my eye, watching them go down the track.
"Giana, she's the real racer. She wanted to stay and race all weekend and we were there for Saturday and Sunday and on Sunday afternoon we were going to leave. Can we stay and race longer? And Nicky says, ‘Can we go home and do our homework?’ There's a big difference. Giana for some reason wants to be a hardcore racer. So she's the one that's going to go to Frank Hawley’s Driving School, get the Super Comp license, get the alcohol license and then come back. And we’ll put her in something. Any fuel car first. She'll drive the alcohol class first. Because I have an alcohol car myself.
“It’s good to have the grandkids follow our footsteps,” he said. “Especially Giana. She's into it. She's got the drive. And people see it all the time. But she's hung around with me ever since she was born. I held her when she was born. She knows everything that I know. Everything I talk about, she's like a little sponge. She doesn't forget it. When T.J. was growing up, whatever he wanted, he got it. But if he made a left turn and went in the wrong direction, I said, ‘Keep on going because I won't be behind you.’ That's what I told her. As long as they're good kids, it's worth spending money on it. And what am I going to do with the money? Take it with me? I'd rather spend it on somebody who appreciates it.”
As for T.J. Zizzo, his father said, “He'll drive forever. He's like me. He'll want to keep doing what he wants if he can.”
MASSEY, DAKIN ‘JUST HAVING FUN’ – Like T.J. Zizzo, Top Fuel racer Spencer Massey and his car owner, Pat Dakin, are on the Camping World Drag Racing Series tour “just having fun.”
Massey said that when he re-emerged from his post-Don Schumacher racing days -- “and I feel the same way now. To tell you the truth, I have a lot more fun bracket racing. The only reason why I'm running Top Fuel is because of Pat Dakin and Scott Graham and his crew guys. And I told them, ‘I'm driving, but I'm only doing it because of you guys.’ I wouldn't drive any other car out here. I would only drive this car, because I love these guys.
“I keep saying that. That's why I love being here, because we're a team. We all want to work together. It's not because we have to be here,” Massey said. “There's a lot of teams out there that drivers and crew chiefs and crew members, they're out here because they have to be here to get a paycheck. We're not out here because we need to get a paycheck. These guys are not here because they have sponsorships, because they have to be out here, because it's a job. Every one of these guys here, they do it because they love this race car and they love racing with Pat Dakin and Scott Graham. And that's why they're out here. And that's why I love being here with these guys, because they love racing. We're out here because we want to win, and we want to have fun.”
Massey was close to clinching an NHRA championship to go with the one he earned in his rookie IHRA season in Mitch King’s dragster. But Massey said he isn’t looking backward; that he’s fine if he never gets another title.
“I don't care. I'm not really racing to win a championship. That's definitely not on my list of things to do right now,” he said. “My list of things to do is just win a race for these guys. And we don't run a full season. We're not trying to chase points. We would never try and do that. So, right now, I would never think about trying to run for a championship. It doesn't matter to me. I just want to have fun, raise my little girl, go bracket racing, and hang out with Pat Dakin and drive a Top Fuel car whenever we want to and have fun.
“I've been out there. I've raced the big-time, full time. And it's fun doing that, but I've been there and done that. Maybe I'll do it again one day, but that's not on my list of things to do right now,” Massey said.
Life has given Massey a fresh perspective. Make that daughter Kori Lynn, born in May, gave him a fresh perspective.
“Yeah, a little baby girl ... It's awesome,” he said of fatherhood. He said he had fun “running with Pat and stuff for a bunch of years, just having fun with these guys” but that it was time to settle down a little.
He said he and his fiancée, Danielle, have been together five years. “And I'm 40. It's time to have a baby. I always wanted a child. I just never knew exactly when. And of course, whenever I was about to be 40, I'm like, ‘Well, I need to do something here.’ My fiancée has an 8-year-old child, a little son. His name's Lyndon. So we talked about it [and decided,] ‘Let’s have [a child].’ And so that's what we did. We're still working on our date for our wedding, but that's something that's going to be down the road. We want to let the baby girl get a little older,” he said. “I still feel like I'm a kid, but at the same time, there's some days I feel like I'm 80. And little Kori Lynn, she's amazing. She's my heart. Yeah, she has my heart.”
Massey said, “Life's different now, being able to take care of the oil and gas business back in Texas. And that's what I do at home. Then get to come hang out with Pat and all these wonderful crew guys. Pat Dakin drove Mitch King's car when he got his license back. And I drove Mitch's car. We've always had a good relationship. Pat called me after I stopped racing with Schumacher. He's like, ‘Hey, you need to keep your license current, because one day, you're going to drive my car.'
“I’d go to Martin, and we'd make a run and keep my license up. And he always wanted to do that for me, so I keep my license. And I always thank Pat for that. But now I'm here, because Pat wants me to be here. And I want to be here, because I want to be here with Pat and the crew guys. And these guys need to have, they need to get a race win. A lot of these crew guys have never won a race. And that's something that's special for all these guys. And as much money and as much time that all these crew guys and everybody that Pat puts into this thing, they need to win a race. They deserve to win a race. And this car is very capable of doing it. Scott Graham tunes this car wonderful. And Pat gives him the best parts that we can get to run this race car. And that's what we're doing. That's why we're here having fun.”
Dakin said he has watched Massey for a number of years: “In IHRA, he was beating everybody. He and Gene [Snow] always had that A-Fuel car, and they raced that. When he was driving the Schumacher dragster, we were pretty good friends back then. He’s good at whatever. When sitting in one of these things, there's probably not many out there any better. I guess you're born with it.”
Massey said, “I've bracket raced, and I ran alcohol dragster, and I came up through sport. And throughout the deal, I still continued to bracket race. And now I do it every weekend. And that's probably why my lights are consistent, and I'm decent on that.
Earlier this year, when Massey was back at Fort Worth, awaiting the birth of Kori Lynn, Dakin drove the car in the four-wide event at Charlotte. “That was enough,” Dakin said. “I'm 77, so I'm just glad to be here, I don't give a s--- how old I am. All I want to do is keep having birthdays.”
NEXT-GEN SALINAS -- Jasmine Salinas was smitten. She knew she wanted to drive a Top Fuel dragster the first time she ever saw a car go down the track. Long before she aged out of the Jr. Dragster program, she knew that was just a stepping stone for her. When she was deciding on what college to attend, she said she narrowing her search to “anything good and very close distance to any racetrack” because her “focus was on college but not college.”
By then, she said, “Nothing was pulling at my heart strings except drag racing.” Her father, Mike Salinas, had begun his Top Fuel career. “So I asked my dad, ‘Can I just be on your team? I know I have no mechanical background whatsoever, but just can I just be a part of it?’ She started working in the office, and, she said, “by the end of that year, I was building superchargers on his car, going through the whole process of trying to turn the car around on race day, working on the cars and seeing what goes into building them and making these fire-breathing monsters go down the track in three seconds. I think that's what really stuck with me.”
Now Jasmine Salinas officially is a Top Fuel driver-in-waiting. The current Top Alcohol Dragster driver recently completed her licensing procedure and now has the equally daunting task of forming her team.
“It’s such a dream come true, and I'm still trying to process how big that is and what that really actually means,” Salinas said of her new label. “What I really think about is all of these people that have been competing and are currently competing in Top Fuel. Those are people I've been looking up to my whole life, and now to even say that, even just having the paperwork, it somehow feels like I'm somehow accepted even into that very small and very unique category of people where they've accomplished so much. I'm just so excited and super-proud to say that I did accomplish any of that.”
But the sobering reality of finances isn’t lost in her euphoria. She knows she has much to accomplish still before she is ready to compete full-time, hopefully starting next March in Gainesville, Fla., with the Gatornationals.
“As much as I love to have fun out here, this is a business, and we understand that,” Jasmine Salinas said. “We do have a lot of testing that we are planning to do. But also right now [we’re] trying to look at what partners we can work with. We've been a family-funded team since we came out. But I really hope that there's an opportunity for me to try to step up and kind of change the direction that our family team has been and try to transition into more of trying to be an ambassador for another company or somebody out there that we can align together and work on something together.
“We are planning the two-car [Scrappers Racing] team. My dad wants to kick my butt and I want to kick his. But together, having two cars, having all that data together, it's only going to help each other. So that's the plan: work as a family,” she said.
She has yet to hire a crew chief. “We're working on that. We have a couple people in mind, people we've been talking to, so we’ll know soon,” she said.
However, she said she definitely has thought about the moment she and her eight-time-winner dad Mike line up next to one another one day. “I know he's thinking about it a lot. I know he's been telling everybody that he’s going to go kick my butt. I think that'll probably be, for both of us, an incredibly emotional moment.”
She admittedly was deliberate in her approach to the licensing process.
“I was very, very clear with my dad that I had a game plan of certain goals that I wanted to achieve and accomplish with the licensing process,” Jasmine Salinas said. “A big part of that was actually when I finally told my dad I wanted to begin licensing. John Force and Brittany Force came over and had a conversation with my dad and me, and they broke down, like Brittany, she took a whole year for licensing and they explained why. For me, too, since my crash that I had in Gainesville in 2021, I learned so much about myself and these cars and I’ve gained so much respect for the cars, honestly. You’re looking really great when everything's going great and then this can change on you really fast. So I wanted to make sure that when I do come out in Top Fuel that I have all the confidence both in myself and in the car and then the team that we choose to be with. And we want to go hit the ground running.”
Jasmine Salinas said the difference between the Top Alcohol Dragster and its 11,000-horsepower big cousin “was the biggest thing that I was so afraid of. And I had talked to a lot of other drivers in Top Fuel and asked them, ‘What does it feel like?’ Half of them were saying, ‘It's so incredible. It's so great. It's so fun.’ And the other half were saying it's the scariest thing they've ever done. Grown men were telling me that they were crying, and so I'm this five-foot-two young woman. I have grown men telling me they're going to cry.”
That, she said, caused her to wonder, “Am I crazy? What am I doing getting into this car?” So she has devised a plan to erase her fear.
“The first time and even now when I'm getting in the Top Fuel car, I'm just telling myself that it's the A-Fuel car, and I'm just going with it and just kind of gaslighting myself, honestly. But everything's pretty much been the same. I'm really, really glad that I chose to go with A-Fuel, because the process and procedures [are] so seamless and everything's been really great. But from half-track on, that's where it's Top Fuel. That's where my internal organs are tickling and shaking and I'm still trying to figure out how to describe it. That's where Top Fuel happens.”
NAIL-BITER FOR BROWN – Antron Brown, winner of last year’s U.S. Nationals, found himself needing that fifth qualifying chance Sunday. He was unqualified following the fourth session, then made it into the field with a 3.806 at 327 mph on his last attempt.
“Hats off to this team for staying resilient,” Brown said. “We had a deal in the bellhousing. And we had a clutch that was giving up the ghost. We put in a different one, and we went down the track.”
He knew right away that he will have a tough first-round match-up in title contender Brittany Force.
Back on the starting line, his crew chief, Brian Corradi, said he felt “blessed” as he awaited confirmation that the team had qualified for Monday’s eliminations. He said, “That’s racing. We’ve struggled, and we’re human, and that’s all there is to it.”
Failing to qualify were Dan Mercier, Lex Joon and Buddy Hull.
Slipping in for the 16th and final slot in the order was first-time qualifier Will Smith, who missed the cut last September. He said, “I don’t feel like I’ve given them [car owner Larry Dixon, crew chief Tony Shortall and the team] a perfect run. I’m working on it.” The emotion in his voice was palpable as he reaffirmed that, “It’s Indy” and that he will be racing for the trophy Monday.
SEEKING TOP FUEL SUCCESS – Top-five Top Fuel racer Leah Pruett won at the U.S. Nationals in 2018 – but it was in the Factory Stock Showdown class, when she was No. 1 qualifier and defeated veteran Mark Pawuk in the final round.
However, what she wants Sunday is her first Top Fuel victory at Indianapolis. While she’s at it, she’d wanted to be part of a Tony Stewart Racing trio to sweep the podium, along with teammates Matt Hagan (Funny Car) and husband Stewart (Top Alcohol Dragster). Stewart advanced to the quarterfinals but lost to Julie Nataas. Still, Pruett has the chance to score a double Tony Stewart Racing victory Monday with Hagan.
“I’ve won the U.S. Nationals in Factory Stock and runnered-up in Top Fuel, so my target is a win this weekend,” Pruett said. “I’m focusing on the facts of this race, more than the feelings, even though it’s hard for them to not creep in, as this is the ultimate race for our premier partner Dodge.”
GRATEFUL ASHLEY MAKES HAUL – Justin Ashley could have been smug Saturday evening. The Top Fuel points leader won his sixth Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge specialty race, punctuating his season-long supremacy with a total of $69,000 in prize money and 21 Countdown to the Championship points.
Instead, he was humble, saying after his victory over Antron Brown, “When you're racing at this level, you have to have gratitude. I'm grateful just to be in this position and race with an excellent team. I'm just trying to do everything I can to soak in the moment.”
The Phillips Connect Toyota Dragster driver pocketed $15,000 Saturday, a $5,000 bump-up from the usual $10,000 winners share of the purse.
“The Mission #2Fast2Tasty Challenge is great for our fans, teams and drivers. We love it because it is another opportunity to turn on win lights and participate in meaningful racing during qualifying. We learn from every run, but I think there's some momentum that gets carried forward between Saturday and Sunday.” Ashley said.
In the opening qualifying session today, Ashley won when Leah Pruett disqualified herself with a foul start. Against Brown in the final round, Ashley cut a nearly perfect reaction time (.017 of a second) to propel him to the wire-to-wire victory.
Ashley’s dad, Mike Ashley, won the Funny Car trophy at the 2007 U.S. Nationals, and that’s one major reason this fabled facility means so much to him.
“This track is so prestigious. It has so much history, and this event is the granddaddy of them all,” Ashley said. “I spent a lot of time here as a kid, watching my dad race many years in Pro Mod and then watching him win the 2007 Funny Car title. I remember that moment like it was yesterday. To flip the script and be in this position on behalf of Phillips Connect and Toyota is an honor.”
Ashley ended up third in the final qualifying order and will meet No. 14 starter Doug Foley in the opening round of eliminations.
TORRENCE NABS ELUSIVE NO. 1 SPOT – Steve Torrence finally will lead the Top Fuel field at “The Big Go.” He earned his career 36th No. 1 qualifying position and first at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park. He has been a Top Fuel finalist in five of his past 10 U.S. Nationals appearances.
His 3.708-second qualifying effort held up through the final four qualifying sessions and put him in excellent position to claim his third Indianapolis title. He won here in in 2017 and 2021 in the CAPCO Contractors dragster.
Torrence followed up his 3.708 Friday night with runs of 3.836 and 3.722 Saturday, earning a total of nine qualifying bonus points -- the most he has accumulated at any race this season as he jockeys for a strong Countdown seeding. The six-race Countdown will start in two weeks at Reading, Pa.’s Maple Grove Raceway.
First, though, Torrence must face No. 16 qualifier Will Smith, who will be making his first U.S. Nationals start under the guidance of four-time U.S. Nationals champion and three-time series Top Fuel champion Larry Dixon.
For Torrence, an unprecedented fifth regular-season championship, which carries no points or payout but does bring a slight Countdown seeding advantage when points are reset, is still within his reach.
This low-qualifier accomplishment is Torrence’s second in the past three events.
“It’s hard not to be confident when these bad-to-the-bone CAPCO boys give you a car that can run in the cool of the evening or the heat of the day,” the 54-time tour winner said. “Now it’s up to the driver to do his job.”
He said taking the top spot Friday was a “huge confidence builder” and said, “Indy’s the marathon of races. You’ve got to come here and be ready to go and endure it.”
In Top Fuel, Torrence has competed in 13 U.S. Nationals and has two victories in five final-round appearances, in 2017 and 2021. He will bring a 23-11 race-day record into Monday’s eliminations.
He has won four different races in the Top Fuel class: the U.S. Nationals, the 2020 Dodge Indy Nationals, the Traxxas Shootout, and last year’s rain-delayed inaugural Pep Boys All-Star Call-Out that was scheduled in March for the Gatornationals.
Torrence, who also won the U.S. Nationals in 2005 as a Top Alcohol Dragster driver, said, “When you win Indy, you know you’ve done something special. You haven’t just beaten the best – you’ve beaten the best at their best, because everybody gets up for Indy.”
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK - FOR JOON, EVEN OWNING TOP FUEL BUMP SPOT IS A SUCCESS
DUTCH TREAT – Gerda Joon was overwhelmed with some sort of mixture of joy and relief and pride.
The lone woman crew chief in the NHRA’s nitro ranks helped her partner make the provisional field for the Dodge Power Brokers U.S. Nationals. And, referring to the team’s motto, she said Top Fuel racer Lex Joon “never quits. I’m so proud of this man!”
Together the Dutch couple had secured the No. 13 position in the Friday order, but dropped to 15th by the end of Saturday’s first session at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park. By day’s end Saturday, Lex Joon was on the bump spot, in 16th place.
But he, like everyone else, will have two more chances Sunday to improve – and he had clocked his career-best elapsed time at 3.858 seconds on the Brownsburg, Ind., 1,000-foot course. But Gerda Joon gushed Saturday evening about how hard she and Lex and their crew members have worked – and they have, rising early every day to work their respective jobs, then reconvene in the race-car shop in every extra hours they have to labor into the wee hours of the next morning. They sacrificed: Several years ago, Gerda Joon finally allowed herself to replace the tennis shoes that she wore for eight years. (She had worn a hole clear through the sole so that her foot touched the pavement as she walked through the pits.)
And Saturday, his goal of “just trying to be prepared as good as possible” is paying off, affirming his declaration that “we are getting there, slowly but steady.” In the first round at Topeka last month, he gave Leah Pruett a tough side-by-side race and lost, but he said this weekend, “Finally I got back into racing again and almost beat Leah. At least from a driver's point of view, I showed myself I still can do it.” And so far, he keeps piling up evidence that he is poised to make the U.S Nationals field for the first time in five attempts.
“This U.S. Nationals, I feel we really have a chance to make it into the field,” Joon said. “I would be disappointed not to make it into the field, but at the same time, then I'm looking at the field and I think, ‘Well, there will be people not qualified that you should expect to be qualified because I will be in there.' Again, that's my energy.
“People come to us, and they say, ‘It's awesome to see you. You’re making those baby steps, and you're getting there.’ Well, that's what we do. But as long as the way is up, we will get there, because there will be a moment, boom! You're in,” he said.
Yes, it’s just the second of three qualifying days, and it’s not like he was top qualifier. But to the Joons, the performance so far this weekend is reassurance that their program is headed in the right direction. And it’s a program the couple, who sold all of their possessions in The Netherlands a decade and a half ago to come and race in the United States, is pursuing virtually on their own.
“Mike Salinas is trying to help in this,” Lex Joon said, “but to be honest I'm not the type of guy to put his hand out. No, I want to earn it.
“If you have to fight like we have to do, then every win or every achievement is awesome,” he added. For the well-funded teams and those who have grown accustomed to winning, Joon said, winning “is something that's just part of the deal. So the reward, the boost to get it done is not there [in the same sense]. It is what it is. They are just in that situation, and we are in our situation. But I always say you only can enjoy the win if you also know what a loss is. And if you don't have it, work towards it.
“That's one of the reasons we moved from Europe to here - because I want everything there is to win. I won an FIA championship. I set records. I won races. I was basically the best driver between 2005 and 2009, looking at all the points I gathered. So now I need a new challenge, because that's the reward you're looking at. To become another time an FIA champion? Sure, it's cool. So always raising the bar. That's the goal. Sure, you want to win a race. Those things happen or not. And when it happens, you need to be ready for it. So what I need to do here is I need to have enough parts and pieces in the trailer. If we go rounds, we can do it.”
He said his situation on that front is “getting better because we don't break anything anymore. Now we are building on inventory. So, yeah, I got more parts in here than I had ever before. Although we still don't have the money, we are able to do it. But because we don't break stuff we can ... instead of replacing we can build.”
When the budget is not even a shoestring but more like a thread, a racer has to conserve, such as forgoing testing. And being able to focus simply on driving is a luxury.
“The problem from a driver's point of view,” Joon said, is that “I wear a lot of hats. I'm an owner. I need to find the money. I need to teach the crew how to do it, and that's not easy. There are a lot of mistakes made. So you try to be ahead of the game, find the mistakes to make so you can take care of it. The tuning aspect, I work together with Gerda to find a way to get it done, but not to break it. And then finally you're in the race car, and if you're in the race car and you're not 100 percent sure everything is OK, then you cannot shine as a driver because there is too much on your mind. You need to have a clear vision. And you need to be 100 percent sure your car is OK.”
He admitted that does let the concerns bother him, constantly wondering if the car is put together properly and if the tune-up is on-point.
“Because we hardly have any data. We cannot test, because it costs a lot of money. Like in Topeka, we put it on the racetrack. And we never run under those circumstances. So what do you do? You try to go back to everything you know and put a tune-up in there and see what it does. So then come race day, you got a little bit like ... you got energy. So now as a driver you say, ‘OK, switch everything off. Now you're the driver. Let's get it done.’ We just don't have enough data for [all the] circumstances.” He was pleased that if he had to lose to Pruett, for example, he lost by just 0.09 of a second. “So, you know, that's good,” he said.
“You try to win, no matter what. But the effort we put in and the outcome was for me good enough for that moment because you’re building,” he said, referring to the Topeka results. “You only can do your best and try to get the most out of it, given the circumstances. If I would have $200,000 a race to spend, it would be different. But it's not only about getting the car on the track, getting it qualified, then put it in a race and win the rounds. It's about getting there first.”
Quipped Gerda Joon, “We're the black sheep of the family.” Lex Joon said, “We are still the foreigners somehow. That's fine. You know, I will deal with it. It gives me a lot of energy to beat your ---. If you want to ignore me, fine. Then the only way to fix this is to put myself front and center and do something that they cannot ignore me.”
Three days ago, somebody wanted to buy a Never Quit decal, Gerda Joon said. The person asking was facing a tough personal family situation, one Joon said “will break your heart.” Immediately they honored the request, and Lex Joon said, “It’s those things that keep us going. And if the rest of the group wants to ignore us, that's fine. In the sense of, you better not ignore me because I'm after you. It gives you more energy. You have to find your energy somewhere.”
Where Lex and Gerda Joon find it is in the reality that they are living their American Dream.
He said, “Do you know how many people that own race cars or drivers would give an arm or a leg to be at the U.S. Nationals? We are. So we already won this battle, and we will win the next one and get it going. And we will be qualified.”
GOOD TASTE - Justin Ashley continued his season's success, securing his unprecedented sixth victory in the Mission #2Fast2Tasty NHRA Challenge. Ashley's phenomenal run of 3.714 at 334.73 mph in his 11,000-horsepower Phillips Connect/Toyota Dragster earned him the win against Antron Brown in the final round.
Ashley's performance not only secured the bonus race victory but also earned him 21 playoff points when the Countdown to the Championship begins.
"These Mission #2Fast2Tasty points add up, especially because of when they come into play, which is after the points reset," Ashley explained. "It was critical for our team to take advantage of every opportunity we had during this challenge. I feel like we did a great job with that, and it's just a testament to the great team that we have."
TORRENCE REMAINS TOPS - Steve Torrence maintained his Top Fuel dominance with a remarkable run of 3.708 seconds at 329.42 mph in his powerful Capco Contractors dragster on Friday.
Torrence is in pursuit of his second No. 1 qualifier of the season, which would mark the 36th of his career. With his sights set on his third overall win at The Big Go and his second victory in three years at the notorious event, Torrence faces stiff competition from defending world champion Brittany Force, who secured the second spot with a time of 3.709 seconds at 333.25 mph. Doug Kalitta remains in contention in the third spot following his run of 3.717 seconds at 328.54 mph on Friday.
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK - FOUR-TIME WINNER DIXON BACK AT U.S. NATIONALS – AS TEAM OWNER WITH PROMISING SOPHOMORE DRIVER SMITH, FOLEY HAS GOALS BEFORE SEASON ENDS
TORRENCE LEADS DAY ONE - Top Fuel champion Steve Torrence was the top of Top Fuel made the quickest run on Friday at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park, scoring the Top Fuel provisional No. 1 position at the 69th annual Dodge Power Brokers NHRA U.S. Nationals.
Torrence went 3.708-seconds at 329.42 mph in his 11,000-horsepower Capco Contractors dragster, going to the top spot on the final run of the night. If that holds, Torrence would earn his second No. 1 qualifier of the season and 36th in his career. He is aiming for his second win in three years at the world’s biggest drag race and third overall at The Big Go.
“This is a huge confidence builder,” Torrence said. “You have to come to Indy and be ready to endure it, and today is the longest day. Everybody likes to see these things at night and fire coming out of them. It's just exciting and it adds a different element to it. We all say we're riding on fire-breathing dragons, but until the nighttime, you don't get to see it.
“It gives us an opportunity to work on the tune-up, work on the raceday setup, and adjust from there. When you go out on Q1 and make a good run, you're comfortable. It gives us that luxury. And it is The Big Go. You want to be the quickest every time. You want to win the race, but there is some prestige to being No. 1, even if it is for the day.”
Defending world champion Brittany Force is currently second after going 3.709 at 333.25 and Doug Kalitta took the third spot on Friday with a run of 3.717 at 328.54.
SMITH SCORES PERSONAL BEST IN ONLY HIS THIRD OUTING – Will Smith, one the NHRA Top Fuel class’ newcomers at age 33, said he dreamed of driving in the sport’s headliner class since he was two years old. He said his career might have been more than 30 years in the making and he might not have earned a victory yet, but it already is amazing.
He added more proof with his Friday-night performance in the opening session of qualifying for the Dodge Power Brokers U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park.
Driving Larry Dixon’s Mac Rak Dragster on the one-year anniversary of his pro debut, Smith clocked his personal-best elapsed time Friday night with a 3.822-second pass at 312.78 mph. It was good enough for the provisional No. 12 position in the order, the result of a collaboration among tuner Tony Shortall, Dixon, and the crew.
“Not bad. We had some issues last week (in) testing, so it was good to come out and make a good, clean run A to B,” Smith said. “So blessed to be here again. I’ve got the folks from Mac Rak on board; definitely have everything we need to be successful. Great parts, great people. You know, a lot of talent over here. A lot of great marketing partners like Mac Rak, Cecil County Dragway, Robert A. Tull Incorporated. He's a partner of Steve Johnson Racing. Same deal, kind of like Mac Rak. He came over and wanted to help us out. We’ve got some great people helping us out [including] Jim Halsey [owner of Maryland’s Cecil County Dragway], representing for them this weekend. We’re going to keep doing our best. That’s a career-best run, so we’re going to keep chipping away and trying to get this thing in the [3.]70s and in the show.
“Tony's a great guy. So, it takes great partners like that, a great team, great crew. Larry’s a great owner and a great wheel man. I'm going to give my best for him. So, I'm going to do my best to deliver those results,” Smith said.
“I pinch myself every day because I was a Larry Dixon fan my whole life, and it's surreal to be in the cockpit of his car. Larry and I have known each other for a long time. He's followed my journey of all the jobs I've had out here at the track leading up to this point, and our paths are very similar. It's really cool that he recognizes that and appreciates that and he wanted to give me this opportunity,” said Smith, a University of Alabama graduate who doubles as the marketing director for PDRA and Virginia Motorsports Park. “It's up to me to just keep working hard at it and hopefully continue to grow this partnership. The goal is to secure enough funding to run full-time. That's the ultimate goal here.”
Smith’s trajectory into a Top Fuel ride started with his longtime job for the Pro Modified team of Shannon Jenkins and Mike Castellana. Their operation was based at Tuscaloosa, Ala., across the Black Warrior River from Smith’s hometown of Northport.
“I started out doing everything, from pushing a broom to doing bottom end to being a team manager. So it was a little bit of everything and driving the rig, and then that ultimately led me over to the Speed Tech side of things when they owned Speed Tech and did marketing and sales over there,” he said. “All that was part of a process before I went to work for PDRA. Shannon Jenkins and Mike Castellana gave me a lot of great opportunities and a wealth of knowledge that I took away from the program we had over there, and it was a piece of the puzzle that added up to where we're at right now as well.”
Likewise, Dixon had worked on teams as a mechanic, drove the hauler, and happily did all the unglamorous jobs until he was given a chance to drive. Dixon, of course, parlayed that opportunity into three Top Fuel championships before becoming a team owner.
Pro Stock Motorcycle racer Steve Johnson plays a part in this relationship between Smith and Dixon – and between the Dixon team and U.S. Nationals sponsor Mac Rak, a leading manufacturer of pallet rack repair kits. Johnson and Dixon have been close friends for decades, and Mac Rak has supported Johnson’s bike racing throughout the years.
“Shawn McDonald and Mac Rak, we’re so happy to have them on board with us this weekend. They wanted to help out. They believe in our program. And that connection came through Steve Johnson and the partnership he has with Mac Rak, and of course, the friendship Larry and Steve have,” Smith said.
“What's crazy-cool is I started helping out Steve when I was, like, 14. Steve was the first one to give me a chance way back in the day, because I'm from Alabama and that's where his shop's at. And the whole reason I chose a marketing path was because of Steve Johnson.
“I don't come from money, so I had to figure out how I can get that and how I can get out here and chase my dream,” he said, “and that came from Steve Johnson. So it's really cool to see us being partnered with Mac Rak and the connection with Steve Johnson Racing, Larry Dixon, the whole circle here, from where I started to where I'm at right now. It's crazy how we've all circled back around together.”
Smith said, “Between Steve Johnson, mine and Steve's friendship, and the [Jenkins-Castellana] deal, we've stayed connected over the years. When I got the chance to drive for the Hirata family, Dave Hirata, to run their A-Fuel car, Larry and I got closer, and he mentored me a lot. Anytime I needed advice, he was always there and just a great guy. There's no other better person I could have in my corner than Larry Dixon.”
He said Dixon gave him a memorable surprise when he debuted here at this race last year.
Smith said, “Last year, we bring out the car, the Miller Genuine Draft-scheme car, the paint scheme we had the throwback last year, which was, man, what an honor. That was my ultimate favorite Larry Dixon car over all the years. I was five years old when that car was out. What was cool is what it represented, and for me to get the chance to wheel the car here was really cool.”
Dixon raced with that livery during his rookie season. And Smith said, “He came to Indy when he was a rookie, [and] he won Indy. So he decided to do a throwback scheme with that particular car for last year for me being a rookie coming to Indy. Why not? So it was just one of those things to where it was like, ‘Way to put some pressure on me.’ I didn't let it bother me, but you know, he came to Indy with that scheme [and] won it as a rookie.
“So we tried that last year. Unfortunately, it didn't turn out that way,” he said. “He did it as a surprise to me. I didn't know the car was wrapped like that till I got to the shop. It was so cool, and then I'm like, ‘Now I've really got to perform.’
“It was just an honor to see how, as a kid growing up, what your dreams are. You've got a lot of the cards stacked against you and then here comes a guy like Larry Dixon and the Hiratas and everybody that helped open some doors for me. It was up to me to take advantage of those opportunities and try to make the best of them. It's just really cool to where it leads,” he said.
“Truthfully, what happened was I sold about everything I owned a few years ago. I sold my race car, my truck, my trailer, and I took all my money that I had and I said, ‘I'm getting a Top Fuel license one way or another,’ and that's what happened. Dave Hirata and the Hirata family [of Lowell, Ind.], they're great people. Love them to death, and I had a great opportunity working with them. I actually lived with Dave. I slept on his couch the four years that I drove for him. I would stay up there from January through the end of the year, November. He let me crash at his house, sleep on his couch, and that's what we did every day and work on race cars and all while still having my full-time job with PDRA. It was a cool experience, paying the dues.”
Smith got the chance to drive again this May at Joliet, Ill, and again he didn’t make the cut. However, Smith, said, it was a productive learning experience.
“We've learned a lot. I know I personally have since last year, since I drove here at Indy, I've got a lot more experience as a driver. I feel like, from Indy here last year, even from Joliet this year,” he said. “Going into Joliet this year, I felt comfortable in the car, and at the end of the weekend, although we didn't make the show, I felt like I learned a lot as a driver and just got my comfort level and confidence level towards where it needs to be, and just looking to build on that this weekend.”
Being comfortable in the car is a key part of growing as a driver.
“It's huge,” Smith said, “People want to say, ‘Oh, you just got to point the car straight and go down the track.’ Essentially, that's what you do, but there's a lot of different other tasks you have from the time the car starts to the time you pull the ’chutes at the other end. I've got such a great group of people here. I can't thank Larry enough for believing in me and giving me this opportunity, so I've always been educated on surrounding yourself with good people, and I think I have successfully done that. I think we have every tool we need, every resource we need. We've just got to put it all together, hopefully all the stars align, and throw down on the racetrack.”
Smith said, “This is what I call the racer's race. Everybody always wants to be at Indy. You know, it's Indy -- like, there's really not much more. I think that sums everything up.”
‘TELL ME THAT STORY AGAIN’ – Connie Kalitta has gotten a kick out of telling the story through the years. His mother, Evelyn, had a bottle of champagne she was saving to drink when he won the U.S. Nationals. Year after year, she was ready to pop the cork. But she always ended up putting it back in the cupboard for another year. And his nephew, Top Fuel racer Doug Kalitta, always got a kick out of hearing it.
“It was always fun to listen to Connie tell the story of his mother, who watched Connie’s career and knew how badly he wanted to win Indy,” Doug Kalitta said. “Apparently, she had this bottle of champagne she was saving to drink whenever he won this thing. Every year, she’d put it back where she got it after he didn’t win. Finally, one year, she decided, ‘The hell with it.’ She just opened it and drank it. To listen to Connie tell that story about his mom and him trying to win it, and then she drinks it one night after he didn’t win it, was just a story that always stuck with me. After Connie won the race [in 1994] is probably when he started telling that story.”
Doug Kalitta has his own special memories of that 1994 race.
“I was racing my Silver Crown car over in Springfield, Ill., and the U.S. Nationals was delayed because of rain. So we ended up flying into a little airport right next to the race track. I think it was called Speedway Airport, I don’t think it’s there anymore. We bopped in there, raced over to the track and made it just in time to watch Connie win the U.S. Nationals. It was pretty cool. We just knew, following him over the years, how badly he wanted to win that thing, and to pull it off was super-exciting. It was cool.”
Kalitta was too modest to mention that at that time he was on his way to earning the USAC National Sprint Car championship. But it took him a longer time to win the U.S. Nationals, like his Uncle Connie. He closed the deal in 2019, when he reached his fourth career final round here.
He left the starting line before opponent Billy Torrence and was on a great run when his car smoked the tires. But Torrence did the same, giving Kalitta a victory that he said “was on my bucket list a long time.”
He said, “Coasting to the win when we actually did win it was a miracle in itself, as far as I was concerned. You’re just sitting there, dead meat, coasting to the finish line, expecting the other car to go blowing by you, but it never did. That was a U.S. Nationals moment, for sure. The way we won in 2019 makes us want to win it again even more.”
Moreover, Kalitta’s crew chief, Alan Johnson, has his own gamut of emotions regarding the U.S. Nationals – and that is inspiring Kalitta.
“Alan has had incredible success at this event, and with Blaine Johnson dying there [in 1996] – it just seemed like Alan’s cars would always win this race – it’s like he’s had this stranglehold on the place for years. It just makes us just want to go there and kick some ass,” Kalitta said. “I’m just excited to be part of hopefully getting another win there for Alan and obviously for everyone at Kalitta Motorsports, Mac Tools, SealMaster, Mobil 1, and Revchem. It’s just such a cool track to race at with a lot of history.”
Kalitta, in the Mac Tools/Toyota Dragster, has qualified in the top four eight times this season. But parlaying that into wins during eliminations has been the issue. A recent test could help straighten that out.
“We tested really well last Monday at Brainerd [Minn.]. Alan, Brian [crew chiefs Johnson and Husen] – all of us – were super-excited with how it went, and I think it’ll bleed right on over into Indy,” Kalitta said. “We have a lot of momentum going, so we’ll see what we can do there. We’ve been qualifying well, which is half the battle, for sure - we’re excited to see what happens.”
FOLEY HOPING TO CLOCK 3.7s – Doug Foley needs to change his zip code – as in how fast he zips down the dragstrip.
“At this point, we need to live in the 70s [3.7-second elapsed times]. And unfortunately, we're living in the 80s. And you can't live in the 80s these days,” he said.
The driver of the Alloy Employer Services Dragster said that after this race, he’ll probably enter “three or four” Countdown events.
“We're not sure, you know. It's kind of the same story, different year. We're just trying to figure out performance, and that's really where we're at. If we figure out performance, you probably won't stop me from going to races. But I'd rather go to four races and kick their ass than go to eight races and suck,” Foley said.
“We need to put ourselves in a different category. We're not there yet. But if it's the last thing I do before I put the car away for the winter, it's going to be something that we're going to be proud of, and we're going to have something to work with before we go into the winter break.”
Foley has had bright performances recently, but he knows it can be frustrating when the car doesn’t behave consistently.
“Our flashes of brilliance are quite rare,” Foley said, choosing what he thought was a more appropriate word. “Flashes of promise,” he corrected. “We show promise. Our numbers are good. The car's starting to respond to the changes we've made. People have helped us and kind of showed us how to make a better, more consistent program, and that's what we're trying to focus on right now.”
HER TURN COMING? – Years ago, in the dank dusk following one of her father John Force’s five Funny Car victories here at Indianapolis Raceway Park, Brittany Force listened to a reporter speak with her mother, Laurie Force. The question was something like: “What makes John Force so successful?” While her mother paused to formulate a reply, an elementary-school-aged Brittany Force leaned over and supplied the answer: “Say that Daddy never, ever, ever gives up.”
Now a two-time Top Fuel champion, Brittany Force doesn’t, either. She has yet to win at Indianapolis, despite owning both ends of the track record (3.640 seconds on the 1,000-foot course, 337.75 mph) from last year’s performance and qualifying No. 1 in each of the past three years. At most races, her Dave Grubnic-tuned car looks like the one to beat, setting low E.T. of the event five times and top speed of the meet 11 times already in 2023. (This year she has retained the national records she set last fall: 3.623 seconds in elapsed time in September at Reading, Pa., and a 338.94-mph speed in November at Pomona, Calif.)
Now-retired older sister Ashley Force Hood won here twice, back-to-back, in a Funny Car. (However, younger sister Courtney Force Rahal, who also is retired, didn’t count an Indianapolis victory among her 12.)
What’s more, this Flav-R-Pac/Monster Energy Chevrolet Dragster driver, who is No. 4 in the standings, hasn’t won a race this season after winning five times in seven final rounds and earning 10 No. 1 starts last year.
Winning at Indianapolis on Monday would take care of both items. She knows that, and as much as she would like to shake that monkey from her back, Force said she’ll be trying to earn as many points as she can this weekend for a favorable Countdown seeding. And she’ll have opportunities, with extra qualifying bonus markers, a go in the final Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge, and qualifying-status points.
“Heading into the biggest race of the season, the U.S. Nationals in Indy this weekend and we’re sitting fourth in points. We’ve come very close to winning this event with two runner-up finishes but this Flav-R-Pac/Monster Energy team is looking to seal the deal and end up in the winners circle this year,” she said. “It’s the final race before points reset, so our team needs to grab as many points as we can to close the gap as much as possible. It’s points and a half with an extra qualifying session, so we’re going to try and really take advantage. Our goals haven’t changed. We want to qualify [in the] top five and have clean and solid passes every run. We’re looking for a winners circle finish.”
BACK-DOOR ENTRY – It appears multi-time Top Fuel champions Shawn Langdon and Tony Schumacher will make this year’s Countdown via the “perfect attendance” rule. Traditionally reserved for the top 10 drivers in the standings at the end of the so-called “regular season,” the Countdown field has expanded to include all racers who have appeared at all races up to the six-event playoff and made at least two qualifying passes (conditions permitting).
And that’s an uncharacteristic spot for each of them, who are multi-time U.S. Nationals winners.
“It’s difficult going to the races when you’ve been struggling,” Langdon said, “but you know at some point it’s going to turn around. We have very talented people on this team. We have very good, smart, intelligent crew chiefs, we have very good crew guys, we have a great group of guys and great partners like Kalitta Air, Revchem and Toyota. We have a team capable of winning, but for some reason, our car has struggled. We don’t know why, but we’re working through those things right now.
“It’s frustrating to know the capabilities we have with our team but it’s not showing yet. We all understand we have to stay patient, block out the negative, and focus on doing our jobs. That’s how we continue to approach this season, and that’s how we’re going to get where we need to be,” the Kalitta Motorsports driver said.
Likewise for Schumacher, who said he’s encouraged by a recent test session he called “beautiful.”
The JCM Racing driver and 10-time, record-setting U.S. Nationals champion, said, “I love Indy. It’s where I got my start racing in Top Fuel. I’ve had so much success there, and nothing would be better than to have a good get-healthy weekend at a facility that’s been so good to me over the years. Our SCAG Top Fuel team is coming off of a beautiful test session where the car performed like it should. The crew is full of confidence, I’m full of confidence, and we feel good. It’s going to be a great weekend, and we’re ready to put on a great show.”
Langdon will be going for his fourth Indianapolis victory. He won most recently in Top Fuel in 2020, seven years after winning it on the way to his lone series title in a dragster. He also earned a U.S. Nationals “Wally” statue in the Super Gas class in 2010.
But all three of those triumphs came in wildly different circumstances. Langdon, still a sportsman-level racer when he can work it into his schedule, first made his mark here in Super Gas. Three years later, while driving for Alan Johnson Racing, he added his first trophy at this Labor Day classic. Most recently he won in 2020, in a season shortened because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The prestige of winning the U.S. Nationals and being able to put your name alongside some of the biggest names in the sport is very rewarding,” Langdon said. “In 2013, it was pretty special because we had a career year and were able to double up after winning the Traxxas Shootout. In 2020, it was a little bit odd, because we were racing in a pandemic. It was my first win driving Connie’s [team owner Kalitta’s] dragster. So it was pretty special to be able to share the winners circle with him, even though, at that time, we didn’t get to do winners circle. It was ‘Pull the car out of your pit and stand with it for a picture.’”
IS STAT A FACT? – Three U.S. Nationals Top Fuel winners in the past 10 years are no longer racing in the NHRA: Richie Crampton (2013), Morgan Lucas (2014), and Terry McMillen (2018).
Seven of the current top-10 Top Fuel racers haven’t won this four-day race, while only two current top-10 Funny Car drivers have blanked here: Bob Tasca III and Blake Alexander. Those still seeking that unique distinction in Top Fuel are Justin Ashley, Brittany Force, Leah Pruett, Austin Prock, Mike Salinas, Clay Millican, and Josh Hart.