1. CRAZY IN THE HEAT - It was blistering hot.

Because of the two-day format, it was a fast-paced day that NHRA racers and crews hadn’t experienced since PRO’s preseason exhibition event at Bradenton, Fla..

But the condensed qualifying action Saturday at the PlayNHRA Virginia Nationals at Virginia Motorsports Park delivered drama for the surprisingly brave and hearty fans who broiled in the grilling grandstands.

Shawn Langdon (Top Fuel), Bob Tasca III (Funny Car), Erica Enders (Pro Stock) and Gaige Herrera (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were qualifying leaders Saturday. 

Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle), Greg Anderson (Pro Stock), Austin Prock (Funny Car), and Brittany Force (Top Fuel) earned victories in the Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge.



2. APPROACHING 500 – Steve Torrence is 1,000 feet away from joining an elite list of drag racers in NHRA history who have won 500 competitive rounds. Helping the CAPCO Contractors Toyota Top Fuel dragster driver’s bid is his performance on Virginia Motorsports Park’s all-concrete track includes two victories, three straight final-round appearances, and an 11-2 overall record.

“That’s a big milestone, and those are people I have a lot of respect for,” Torrence said, referring to the racers on the list. “But we aren’t racing at Richmond for records. We’re racing to win rounds and win Wallys. We know what’s ahead of us with the Countdown, and we need to start building some momentum.”

Torrence would be the 23rd racer in any class to accomplish the 500-round-win feat. John Force, with 1,459 Funny Car round-wins, leads the pack.

Steve and wife Natalie Torrence welcomed their second daughter, Harper Sloan, this week. Top Fuel racer Billy Torrence, Steve’s father and Capco Contractors owner, said the baby “is a dead ringer for [older sister] Charli. So we [he and wife Kay] have double-barrel knockout granddaughters."



3. GAIGE-ING SUCCESS – Gaige Herrera never had raced at Virginia Motorsports Park before Saturday. But in his first trip down the quarter-mile, he set the facility’s elapsed-time record for the Pro Stock Motorcycle class. His 6.703-second run at 200.83 mph erased Angie Smith’s May 2022 mark of 6.756 seconds, but her 201.37-mph speed record stands. 

Herrera is tied with legendary Pro Stock driver Bob Glidden for the most consecutive victories (nine) and elimination round-wins (35) in NHRA history; meaning, he has a chance to own those distinctions outright this weekend.

He hasn’t lost in four races this season on his RevZilla/Mission Foods/Vance & Hines Suzuki, and he won the final five bike events in 2023. But he’s concentrating simply on making a meaningful pass each time he has a chance.

“That’s the approach I have to go with,” Herrera said. “You never know what’s going to happen. It’s hard to say you’re just going to go out and break the record. There’s so many different aspects that play into it as far as the bike, myself, and all the other competitors. But leaving Bristol, I feel like I conquered something. Last year, it beat me in the ground a little” when he lost to Steve Johnson in the final on a red light. 

“To get the win there, I was ecstatic. It almost felt like I won the championship all over again.”





4. WILDGUST MOVES TO ELITE MOTORSPORTS – Pro Stock’s Erica Enders has worn white hats as a series champion and a Mission Foods #2FastTasty Challenge winner, yellow hats for qualifying first in the starting order, and a variety of colors of hats for earning her 48 victories. Now she will once again be wearing another hat – that of a driving mentor.

Rookie of the Year Award candidate Sienna Wildgust has jumped ship from KB Titan Racing to Elite Motorsports, and will be racing with her new colleagues starting at the July 19-21 Northwest Nationals at Pacific Raceways, near Seattle. Enders has helped show the Pro Stock ropes to more than a handful of current standouts.

Wildgust joined Elite Motorsports in making the announcement Saturday morning at Virginia Motorsports Park. Her father, Scott Wildgust, was unhurt Friday after his Pro Modified car crossed the center line Friday and hit the wall. His run was disqualified, and he did not return to the track Saturday.

"My family has known Richard Freeman for a long time, and I have always looked up to Erica as a driver and as a person. She came up through the Jr. Dragster racing with her sister Courtney same as I did with my sister [Avery]. I believe I can learn a lot from her. I'm excited to have her as a mentor and have her help me further my career,” said Wildgust. “Elite Motorsports is a family. Racing, for me, has always been a family sport. I feel, and my family feels, like this is going to be a good fit. With the culture of the team and all the experience, I believe I can learn a lot. I've always wanted a career in drag racing, in Pro Stock. Joining Elite is going to move my career path forward."

Enders said, “I look forward to mentoring Sienna. I'll tell you what, for being so young, she is beyond her years in identifying what's right and wrong, what's good and bad. She has a clean slate and doesn't have a lot of bad habits yet. And most importantly, she hasn't been negatively tainted by the sport yet.

“I have always said that people are the most important part of the puzzle, and she nailed that by choosing Elite. We operate differently here at Elite Motorsports. It is about family. It's about being a team and operating as one,” Enders said. “We don't have dissension. It is not tolerated. We swim in the same direction. We don't point fingers. … We work hard, and we play hard. I am so proud of what we have built.”

Enders, the six-time world champion, is a 20-year Pro Stock veteran. As such, she has contributed to helping racers new to the class.

“I have had the privilege of teaching a lot of racers how to drive Pro Stock. From Drew Skillman, Bruno Massel, Marty Robertson, and Brandon Foster, to my teammate Jerry Don Tucker. And I've helped mentor and advance the skills of the Cuadra brothers, Troy Coughlin Jr., and Aaron Stanfield. I take as much pride in that as I do driving,” she said. “When I really get to thinking about the legacy I want to leave behind when I am done with this sport, it boils down to embracing those next in line. It’s our job to help others. It's my job to make their journey to the top shorter and much more enjoyable.”

Wildgust also is the granddaughter of sportsman racer Paul Martin. Already she has competed at the first six races of this season, qualifying for the Winternationals at Pomona, Calif., and at both four-wide events, at Las Vegas and Charlotte. Her most recent Pro Stock national-event appearance was at the Route 66 Nationals at Route 66 Raceway, at Joliet, Ill.

The move surprised the KB Titan team.

Greg Anderson said, “All I can tell you is that as far as I knew, everything was great. I’m as shocked as anybody. I don’t know why. Don’t have a bloody clue. I’m still stunned. I don’t know what to say.”

He didn’t show any anger at all about the situation, saying, “We’re going to race together a lot of years. You can’t be like that. You’ve got to be civil. But it surprised the s--- out of us, I can tell you that.”



4. TIME TO KNUCKLE DOWN – Funny Car owner-driver Ron Capps isn’t worried about making the top 10 for the Countdown. He’s in seventh place, with five more races after this before the playoff seedings are finalized. But he’s eager to get back into championship form after lasting no longer than the second round at the past four races.

“As I’ve documented all year long, the changes our NAPA team has made with the tune-up and the chassis, and all of the things we envisioned with the changes in an effort to get better, are really starting to show on the track now,” Capps said. “So, I’m very excited to get back into our NAPA AutoCare Toyota GR Supra this weekend, battle the conditions, put on a great show for the fans, and see if we can’t start moving our way back up the NHRA Mission Foods point standings.”

Capps, the 2109 winner here, isn’t the only series regular who needs to get moving up in the standings if he (or she) wants to be in a decent position for the six-race playoffs that start in September.  

In the Top Fuel class, Tony Stewart and Brittany Force – two who have enjoyed that championship feeling – are ninth and 10th, respectively.  If Josh Hart, who’s ranked 11th and is 61 points behind fourth, should have a hot streak, he could push Force and maybe Stewart, too, from the top 10. All three will advance to the Countdown, as long as they attend every event, but, naturally, each wants to be in a stronger position than ninth, 10th or 11th to make a legitimate run at the title.

In Funny Car, Paul Lee is the lone top-10 driver who won’t have the luxury of the “Make-every-race, make-the-Countdown” rule since he didn’t enter the Epping event.  No. 11 Cruz Pedregon, No. 13 Buddy Hull, and No. 14 Dave Richards are expected to qualify for the Countdown. But Blake Alexander (whose boss, Jim Head, isn’t terribly motivated to participate in or rah-rah about the so-called playoffs), could slip into the top 10. He’s only 15 points out of the top 10, at No. 12.

The Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle pictures are a little bit more curious. Pro Stock has six racers and the bikes four racers who are outside the top 10 but officially will be Countdown contenders.

In Pro Stock, Deric Kramer (No. 11), Matt Hartford (12), Eric Latino (13), Kenny Delco (15), Chris McGaha (16), and Mason McGaha (17) have attended all races. Cuadra brothers Cristian and David are in the top 10, but must continue to stay there on merit. They have not entered every race, including this one. If Kramer and/or Hartford have a successful summer stretch, they could knock the Cuadras out of the running. Kramer is just 22 points outside the top 10, and Hartford is minus-53.

The 11th, 12th, 13th and 16th Pro Stock Motorcycle racers – Marc Ingwersen, Chris Bostick, Ryan Oehler, and Hector Arana Jr., respectively – will vie for the championship,  with longer odds. But in the next few races, that could become a scramble. Current No. 10 Steve Johnson isn’t the only vulnerable one among the top 10.

5. PlayNHRA WON’T RUIN BRACKET BONANZA – Since the sanctioning body gave the green light to gambling on drag racing with PlayNHRA, many have wondered how that has affected the popular second-year fantasy-format Drag Race Bracket Bonanza.

Elon Werner, creator of Drag Race Bracket Bonanza, said fans have nothing to fear. The two programs, which are distinctly different, actually complement one another.

“It's been great,” he said. “The first thing is NHRA made me aware of it as it was kind of coming together, and they created a lane for me, in that Drag Race Bracket Bonanza is free. Our prizes are worth less than $500, so that fits into the actual rules for Play NHRA. I really think it's beneficial for both parties.

“Obviously, PlayNHRA is great for older [individuals] – 18-year-olds, 20-year-olds, depending on the state – to play. But Drag Race Bracket Bonanza is a fantasy game. Fantasy is a gateway to wagering,” Werner said. “So it benefits us to have that level of events or games for people to be able to play as a family, as your buddies or whatever. And then you're like, ‘Well, you know what? I feel like I'm really good at this. I can afford it. Maybe I will place a small wager on Top Fuel.’ Or ‘I'm really good at my Pro Stock bracket. I can make a Pro Stock bet if I want to.’ So that's the whole deal.”

He assured that Drag Race Bracket Bonanza “will always be free [and] kid friendly, because I want to have it be open for anybody. You want your Jr. Dragster kids to be able to play with their buddies or families and things like that. But it fits in the alignment with every other major sport. Every other major sport has some kind of fantasy game, and then they have their own version of PlayNHRA.”

Wisely, Werner’s fantasy experience is promoting PlayNHRA, with the sanctioning body supporting his venture, too.

“So, it's really worked out really, and I think we'll be able to promote it. Drag Race Bracket Bonanza promotes all the PlayNHRA NHRA posts, because it's kind of like, ‘Hey, this is a great opportunity for you to get involved in gaming, if that's your thing. But if it's not, hey, here's a free opportunity that's kid-friendly.’ So we can have a symbiotic relationship, for sure.”




6. WHAT’S GOING ON? – In the White Alligator Racing camp, it’s a tale of two Pro Stock Motorcycles. And it has been a little bit more like the worst of times for Chris Bostick and his The Surf RV Resort Suzuki, while it has been more like the best of times for his teammate, Chase Van Sant, and the Trick Tools entry.

Bostick, his team said, “is putting on his scientist hat to ascertain how he and the White Alligator Racing (WAR) team, led by Tim Kulungian, can create the performance they need to break into the points discussion.” 

Bostick said before this race got under way, “We are going to try some new things in Virginia. Right now, we aren’t pleased with the performance we are getting out of my bike, even though it has the same horsepower on the dyno that the other WAR bike (Van Sant’s) has. We are trying to understand why my bike doesn’t seem to accelerate from 60 feet like Chase’s does. The acceleration from my motorcycle from the 60-foot mark to half-track is not close to what we are seeing with Chase’s bike. It’s something we have to figure out.”

The research likely will continue. With the bike field numbering just 14 rather than the full 16, Bostick didn’t have to worry about qualifying. However, he didn’t plan to be No. 14, which was his final qualifying spot after Saturday’s three rounds.   





7. BIKE SURPRISE – For the first time a while, Gaige Herrera didn’t claim all the achievements in the day’s Pro Stock Motorcycle action. Matt Smith, who seems to be about the only rival who can match or top Herrera lately, eliminated Herrera in the first round of Saturday’s Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge. Then he went on in the final round to dismiss Herrera’s Vance & Hines teammate Richard Gadson for the trophy and Countdown points.

In the Pro Stock version, the final was a familiar match-up between Erica Enders and Greg Anderson. And thanks to a .004-second reaction time, Anderson edged Enders, whose consolation was her 38th top-qualifying position.

Austin Prock relied on a .065-second light at the Christmas Tree (compared to opponent John Force’s somewhat snoozy .110) to score a wire-to-wire victory over his boss in the Funny Car final of the Challenge. It was Prock’s second time to defeat Force this season in the bonus race. “It’s always good when it’s an all-JFR final,” he said.

In the final Challenge race of the weekend, Top Fuel’s struggling Brittany Force got a much-needed boost, beating Tony Schumacher.


8. FINNISH BIKE TEAM SUFFERS SERIOUS ACCIDENT ON WAY TO VMP – The Finnish team of Elmeri Salakari that had shown so much promise in the Pingel Top Fuel Motorcycle Series opener is regrouping after a serious accident earlier this week on Interstate 40 in Oklahoma as it was traveling to the PlayNHRA Virginia Nationals.

Crew member Ari Lapiolahti (who goes by the nickname "Nitro Jesus") was severely injured and remains hospitalized in Oklahoma City. According to Jaska Salakari, the racer's father, Lapiolahti's right foot was severed at the scene, and his leg has been amputated below the knee. He also suffered splintered ribs, a broken collarbone, and possible shoulder damage and is in danger of losing several fingers. He has undergone several surgeries and is facing several more in the coming days.

"But he is alive and not paralyzed or brain-damaged," Jaska Salakari said.

With help from hauler driver Hannes Köntti (a.k.a., "Hanski"), Elmeri Salakari, trained in first aid and trauma management during his service with Finland's Army, applied a compression bandage on Lapiolahti's thigh with an extension cord, almost certainly saving his life.

According to motorcycle-racing publication Eat My Ink, racer Elmeri Salakari, a finalist at the Route 66 Nationals at Joliet, Ill., and his father, Jaska Salakari, had stopped at Sam Wills' shop at Oklahoma City. Wills had loaned a hauler to the Salakari organization, and shortly after loading it and taking off for Dinwiddie, Va., at about 5 p.m. (Central Time), they first experienced a minor mishap.

The rig hit a bump in the road that caused enough trouble to require the team to pull over to the side of the highway and fix it. Despite the fact the team had taken proper and adequate measures to alert oncoming traffic, a semi-truck came along and crashed into the rear of the hauler at full force. The rig was inoperable, and the contents were destroyed. 

Elmeri Salakari also was injured. He momentarily had lost consciousness on impact, but awoke in time to help his friend. He was later treated and released from the same hospital with minor bruises and stretched ligaments in his right thumb.   

Friends established a Go Fund Me page to help defray medical expenses. The link to that is:

Fundraiser by Elmeri Salakari : Salakari Racing - Ari Lapiolahti Recovery Fund (gofundme.com)

Jaska Salakari provided details of the situation in the following post from his Facebook page:

"Thanks for all the hundreds of messages we have received in the last two days. We appreciate them. They have helped us survive these days.

"[It is unclear] What really happened in the accident and what damage and injuries did the accident cause. The situation is not good in any way except that no one died.

"The accident happened in a road work zone where the speed limit is 55 mph. The road was in really bad condition and huge bumps, Hanski was driving the truck and noticed that there were sparks everywhere behind the truck. The trailer was thrown from side to side on the safety chains and was close to falling on its side. He managed to stop safely on the side of the road. Ari immediately said that ‘This is a very dangerous place to stop,’ and he and Elmeri moved the plastic traffic control cones closing the lane until the previous junction before they went to see how they could quickly hook the trailer back up and continue to the truck stop half a mile away to check more closely what happened.

"Hanski took a flashlight and went behind the trailer to warn other traffic. Elmeri and Ari went between the truck and the trailer to hook the trailer back up. Hanski noticed that the oncoming semi would not slow down or change lanes and was going to hit the trailer, but he didn't have time to warn his friends.

"Terrible blow and bang to the trailer parts of the trailer filled with air and the road. Hanski's thought was that both died immediately. He first shouted to Elmeri, who answered from 30 yards away from the bottom of the ditch, after which he shouted to Ari, whose answer was not heard. Elmeri climbed up from the ditch. They found what looked like a clothespin, which was revealed to be Ari, who was seriously injured. His right leg was missing from the ankle, and Ari did not react to anything. Before the ambulance arrived, Elmeri and Hanski put a compression bandage on Ari's thigh with an extension cord so that he wouldn't bleed to dryness and gave first aid, which possibly saved Ari's life. Elmeri has received thorough trauma and first-aid training while serving in the Finnish Army [that] he did not panic or go into shock even though the situation was really chaotic.

"Elmeri tried to call 911, but Prepay can't call 911. He called me at 5.09 a.m. I immediately understood from his voice that something really serious had happened. He said that a truck hit behind them at least 60 mph and everything was destroyed. He and Hanski are alive, but there is no information about Ari. I asked him to share his location with me, which was 40 miles from my hotel. I started driving to the place immediately. I got there and tried to get out of the car to check what happened to my son and my two friends. The police wouldn't let them out of the car and threatened to arrest me if I didn't continue the journey immediately, I didn't get any information, I had to keep going. Just like I had my worst nightmare.

"Elmeri was really not well. He had lost consciousness involuntarily from the blow. Both shoes had come off his feet. They still haven't been found. It's a total miracle that Elmeri wasn't injured very seriously or died, either. After a complete check-up, he was able to leave the hospital. The injuries are superficial bruises and the ligaments of the right thumb are stretched.

"Ari was very badly injured. He is now receiving the best care possible at OU Hospital in Oklahoma City. He has undergone numerous surgeries and will have to undergo several more in the coming days. At the moment, he has had his right leg amputated below the knee. The situation is also very uncertain with the fingers of his left hand. The doctors are doing everything to save the fingers, because he is left-handed. In addition, all his ribs are splintered, cervical vertebrae, broken clavicles, possibly also serious damage to the shoulders, but he is alive and not paralyzed or brain-damaged.

"Ari's recovery is now the most important thing. He and his wife Laura need all of our support now. The racing equipment survived the accident surprisingly well. After the Chicago race we made a lot of good improvements so that we could also show how fast our bike is. Expectations were high and the feeling was great. Our team will need a lot of support so that we can participate in the two remaining races."


9 . BUTNER BACK IN PRO STOCK – Bo Butner said, “I’d run five classes in a weekend if they’d let me.” The NHRA won’t let him do that, so this weekend he’s settling for “just” two – Pro Stock and Mountain Motor Pro Stock.

He hadn’t planned this weekend to compete in Pro Stock, the class in which he won the 2017 championship. But the Elite Motorsports associate will fill in for Fernando Cuadra Jr. in the yellow Corral Boots / Cuadra / Columbia Impex Chevy Camaro, while pursuing his first Mountain Motor Pro Stock championship. Cuadra Jr. and his brothers, twins David and Cristian, will not be competing this weekend because of business obligations.

For Butner, the task is nothing new. “I always race two classes in sportsman, so on me personally, it’s not going to be very different,” he said. “Elite Motorsports has a lot of guys over in the 500-inch side of things, and our new crew over in the JHG Mountain Motor pits is gelling, too, so it’s going to be a busy but good weekend.”

Because the Pro Stock class has not raced at Virginia Motorsports Park since 2019, Butner entered the weekend as the most-recent event winner. “Last time Pro Stock raced there, I did get the win. I technically doubled up with a Factory Stock Showdown win. But it was when it was still an exhibition class, so it doesn’t count the same. Virginia is awesome. I mean, it’s shocking how nice the track is. It’s one of the smoothest tracks we have on tour; probably nicest track I’ve been on. It’s a first-class facility, and we should be there every year. With the heat this weekend though, the goal will be just to get from A to B. Nobody is going to try to break records.”

The Pro Stock track records go back even farther than 2019. Mike Edwards set the elapsed-time standard at 6.509 seconds in October 2009. At that same race, Greg Anderson clocked the track’s fastest speed for the category at 215.36 mph.

“I don’t want to take away from the Mountain Motor program at all,” Butner said. “I’m involved in the engine program over there. I think I’ll just be showing up in the staging lanes and jumping in Fernando Jr.’s car. It’s a new car. It’s good, just getting some more laps on it. It’s going to be fun. We’ve got a lot of cars on the entry lists, 20 in Pro Stock and 16 in Mountain Motor Pro Stock with only eight spots.” 

He has won the first two events of the Mountain Motor Pro Stock season. In winning the Charlotte JHG Mountain Motor Pro Stock trophy, at the season’s first race for the series, he became just the second driver (after Jeg Coughlin Jr.) to win a national event in seven different categories.

Come to think of it, maybe Bo Butner has three jobs. “We had 14 Mountain Motors in Bristol,” he said, “and we didn’t get my wife, Randi Lyn, qualified. So I need to get that done or it’s going to be a long way home.”

10. DID YOU KNOW? – Bristol winner Jeg Coughlin Jr., who’s driving the SCAG Power Equipment / Outlaw Mile Hi Light Beer Camaro, is looking for his first victory at Virginia Motorsports Park. This is one of two places on the current calendar where he hasn’t had a victory; the other, New England Dragway. And his Elite teammate, Erica Enders, is seeking a victory that would be her first at Virginia and her 50th national-event victory (49th in Pro Stock, to go with her lone triumph in Super Gas). With a victory, the Johnson’s Horsepowered Garage / Melling Performance / SCAG Camaro driver will have won at every track currently on tour.  ...

Reigning Top Fuel champion and points leader Doug Kalitta isn’t a huge baseball fan, but he was invited to throw the ceremonial first pitch at the Detroit Tigers-Washington Nationals game Wednesday, June 12. Kalitta, a lifelong resident of the Detroit area who lives in Saline, Mich., said daughter Avery “helped me practice a little bit. One thing that really helped: The guy who met us and took us down to the field was adamant, ‘Do not hit the dirt with the ball.’ For whatever reason, that’s frowned upon. We managed not to do that, and the guy caught it. So that was positive. It was a little wide to my left, but he caught it, so that was a victory there. It was definitely cool. I grew up down the road from there, and my grandfather was a big Tigers fan, so it was really special. I appreciate everyone that helped make that happen for me, and they put a nice sign up on the scoreboard out there. So yeah, it was cool.” Kalitta is 1-for-2 in final rounds at the past two events.  ...

Back in 2006, when J.R. Todd was driving a Top Fuel dragster, he won at Denver to become the first black driver to win a Top Fuel race, and his firesuit was donated to Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. On Friday, before Todd headed to the track, he paid a visit to the museum and saw his firesuit on display for the first time. “I think for any drag racer to have their gear in there is a pretty cool deal,” Todd, who never had visited the Smithsonian, said. He said he had been eager “to check that place out” and had been receiving “pictures from fans who have gone there and seen it over the years. So that’s pretty neat.” On the racetrack, Todd has a semifinal-or-better finish at every race this season except for the mid-May Route 66 Nationals at Joliet, Ill.