EVENT NOTEBOOK: SCAG PRO SUPERSTAR SHOOTOUT - BRADENTON, FLA.
THE STORIES BEHIND THE SCENES AT THE PRO SUPERSTAR SHOOTOUT
DON WOULD HAVE BEEN PROUD - At the end of the PRO Superstar Shootout; three drivers hoisted unique Cold Hard Art trophies and unprecedented winner checks of a one-off event that gave off the vibes of a drag racing tradition in the making.
Doug Kalitta (Top Fuel), Austin Prock (Funny Car) and Erica Enders (Pro Stock) took home the marquee titles. Chad Green won the Nitro Challenge title, and Darian Boesch (Top Sportsman), Matt Dadas (Super Stock), and Monty Jo Bogan Jr. (Stock) all scored sportsman victories.
Kalitta and Clay Millican battled it out in qualifying and then the final round, with the former taking home the big bucks. When he reminisced about his victory and what it meant to his team, his mind quickly focused on how much the event would have meant to one of drag racing’s icons who passed away ahead of the event.
Don Schumacher died on December 20, 2023, following a brave battle with cancer. Schumacher supported PRO and even competed in the original PRO/PRA events in Tulsa, including the first one that went head-to-head with the NHRA U.S. Nationals.
Kalitta was mindful of drag racing’s winningest team owner on Saturday night.
“I’m sure Don Schumacher would be super proud of what PRO put together here, and the money that was raised, and just how this whole thing turned out,” Kalitta said. “He was definitely probably one of the most hardcore in NHRA, with Connie [Kalitta]. He just loves this sport.”
Prock, being tuned by his father Jimmy and brother, drove like a seasoned professional after getting the car sorted out. Working with John Force Racing and on this team, in particular with Robert Hight driving, I understood the car he drove was usually one of the quickest and fastest in testing every year.
It might have been anything but Prock rocket science that got his racecar working right en route to beating Matt Hagan on the money run.
“We were talking to her [Wednesday night],” Prock admitted. “Even [John] Force was over here rubbing on it and speaking sweet nothings to it and might’ve not worked that day. But after she slept on it was a new race car.”
If there’s one thing the multi-time champion Erica Enders has learned in her years of racing Pro Stock, it is to know when the big moments are. She clearly knew the biggest payday in Pro Stock history was on the line, but winning this event over Dave Connolly would be more than taking home a hefty purse and even more than getting the best of a rival.
“It played out the exact way that we wanted it to,” Enders said. “And I give God all the glory because it’s through him that we can do all things. And you can self-doubt, listen to the negativity in the haters, but if you have him as your captain, there’s absolutely no way to fail,”
Chad Green took home the Don Schumacher Nitro Superstar trophy. He stopped Steve Torrence in the final round of the consolation race, where those who missed the eight-car cuts were paired in a Chicago Style format.
“I did something today I definitely thought I would never do, and that’s race against a Top Fuel dragster,” Green said. “And on top of that, when I heard I was gonna be doing this last night when we got bumped out, I was like, ‘Oh, I just hope I get Steve Torrence.’ That’s what I went home telling all my crew last night because he’s my buddy, and just to get a chance to race against a Steve Torrence, right? Or Brittany [Force], for sure. I was like, ‘If I don’t get Steve, I want Brittany.’ I went up to Steve after the first round and said I’ll probably never get a chance to do this again, and then, boom, we get to race each other in the final. So I got to beat him two times. I think I got a holeshot both times. I’m just really proud of that.”
FAMILIAR FACES - In at least two final rounds, two teams facing one another had a history of working together. One of the splits was amicable, and the other wasn’t.
In Top Fuel, Kalitta faced Millican, now tuned by two of Kalitta Motorsports’ former tuners - Jim Oberhofer and Nicky Bonifante. Kalitta entered the final round, knowing exactly the fierce battle they planned to bring to the starting line.
“Jim always worked over here for, with Nicky obviously forever, super long time, and he’s a hell of a tuner,” Kalitta said. “So I knew going up there it was going to be a tough race. And Clay, he’s as hungry as they get.”
Then there was Erica Enders versus Dave Connolly, who last worked together on Victor Cagnazzi’s Pro Stocker, which didn’t exactly end on the greatest terms.
“I could have probably told you that’s how it was going to play out just because of the huge history,” Enders said. “The huge history that we have there. I learned some from him, but I am 10 times the driver and the person that I was when we worked together back in the mid-2000s.
“And this proves that with the right group of people and having them have your back and them not wavering, you don’t have to wonder where they stand or who’s going to snake your deal or what’s going to happen. I know exactly where my boys are at all times and where their heart is. And I think with that, like I say, people are the most important part of the puzzle.
“We talk about God’s timing. Sometimes it’s hard to understand what’s going on, but when I went through that heartache and that backstabbing and everything that got me to here, I now know that that’s why. Because with this group, the entire universe is possible, and I’m just really thankful to be their driver.”
THE FOMO FACTOR - The two-story platforms along the back of the staging lanes and at the top end of the track were erected to send a message. The message was not to racers, nor was it to any other race series. The message was to the race fans and VIPs at the PRO Superstar Shootout.
The VIP sections were inaccessible to all, but those who did gained one of the best vantage points to watch the drag race. And the message was clear, “We want you to have the time of your life.”
The platforms were just one aspect of doing things differently than in the past.
“I feel this sport has kind of lived by the credo of if it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” said event promoter Wes Buck. “We do this because that’s the way we’ve always done it. I think, in a lot of ways, if you watch the video of a drag race from the mid-nineties, it really doesn’t look a lot different in terms of production and presentation than it does today. And I wanted to change that. I felt there needed to be a new tier of entertainment-focused drag racing events.
“There’s no issues with the on-track product in drag racing. I want to make that clear. This is the great American motorsport. It is the greatest sensory experience that I believe exists.”
In itself, Buck believes the drag racing on the track in today’s world is as good as it gets.
“Where we needed improvement and where there was an opportunity, were outside those concrete guard walls, in how people are treated, the experience, the overall atmosphere, the level of production, and the pomp and circumstance,” Buck explained. “Those things matter. I’m a big touchpoint guy. And I recognize that it’s. Every time we’re interacting with a racer, a fan, or a sponsor, it needs to be a coordinated, focused effort. It needs to be from the moment they pull in the start in the parking lot; they need to know they’re somewhere special. They’re somewhere different.”
Buck realizes that the PRO Superstar Shootout’s venue, Bradenton Motorsports Park, is not necessarily a zMax Dragway, the palatial strip built on the motorsports hallowed grounds of Charlotte Motor Speedway, much like the Whiskey-A-Go-Go, the small nightclub rockstar venue outside of Los Angeles, isn’t the Forum. On this weekend, it was as if Metallica played the Whiskey, and all who could come to watch - did.
“We’ve gone to great lengths to make this place pretty and dress up the honky-tonk that is Bradenton Motorsports Park,” Buck said. “The collaboration happens at the top. Competition happens at the bottom. And this is in a group of people that have put their own personal agendas, their own personal racing programs, really to the side to do what needed to be done for the sport of drag racing.”
Buck said it was Richard Freeman, who was the visionary for the event. The PRO board member who is credited with revitalizing Pro Stock in NHRA. He approached Buck following one of his World Series of Pro Modified events and inquired if he could pull off the same scenario for the nitro and Pro Stock divisions.
Of all the venues the race could have run at, there was only one Buck was willing to host it.
“Some bands sound better in a honky-tonk,” Buck said. “Drag racing’s that band. You’ve got to have ZMAX, you’ve got to have Las Vegas, you’ve got to have these luxurious super tracks. But I really think that it’s special to see big-time talent in a small, intimate venue. And I think that’s what we provided fans this weekend, an opportunity to get as close to the action as they’ve ever been while simultaneously being entertained from start to finish.”
The race fan was the focus first, with the race teams a close second. And for many fans, they never left their seats in the stands, even while tractors did laps in track prep. This could have been because of the move-you-lose aspect. For the large part of the day, the stands (much smaller than zMax) were packed with fans standing as much as three rows deep alongside the fence to witness Saturday’s sold-out action.
There was constant music playing music to keep fans entertained in between runs and during downtime.
“We wanted to redefine the way drag racing’s presented, redefine the way drag racing events are held and operated, and so far, so good,” Buck added.
While there are rumors of future events at other venues in the coming seasons, this first one delivered the desired results.
Now, back to the monstrosity known as the VIP center, which sums up the fan experience of the event. Buck confirmed it took a week to construct, and thanks to additional sponsorship, monies will stay in place through the upcoming Drag Illustrated World Series of Drag Racing.
“We’ve been working on the layout of this facility for literally six months,” Buck explained. “Aerial photography, satellite imagery, multiple site visits. We’ve surveyed every inch of this property because we knew we would have to be extremely precise with our trucks and trailers to get everybody in here in an organized fashion, get all of our vendors in here, and get this incredible VIP deck put together.”
The erection of what some could describe as the ultimate grandstands was handled by Production Management One based out of Orlando, Fla.
“I sketched this out on a legal pad and told them, ‘We need a double-decker hospitality with a high vantage point to watch from behind the track,” Buck said. “We need that structure behind the waterbox so it’s visible to our fans online. Create a little bit of FOMO (fear of missing out). Make people want to be a part of this.
“We’ve started with these totems... 16-foot tall totems. We’ve got a 15-foot tall VIP viewing deck down on the big end. It’s been burning the midnight oil all week long to get this stuff erected.”
And in the end, the mission was achieved. It was a fan experience that will likely be talked about for a long time.
AN AUSPICIOUS START - One man’s roughness might not be the same as another.
Rookie Funny Car driver Austin Prock has his own definition of what rough is following the first two days of testing at Bradenton Motorsports Park, where apparently, he couldn’t seem to hit his butt with both hands.
“Rough is not making it past the Christmas tree seven runs in a row,” Prock said. “We were all beating our heads up against the wall. I think some of us might’ve been on suicide watch there for a little bit, but we stayed at the track, I think, until 1 AM that [Wed] and came up with a game plan and showed up to the race track [Thurs]. And the thing was hauling the mail like this Prock Rocket typically does.”
But before that moment arrived, the Procks, not only Austin but also his crew chief father Jimmy and brother Thomas, were taking the whole situation personally. One journalist found out as a frustrated Jimmy walked by.
“How’s it going,” the media member asked.
“Not good at all,” he responded sternly.
“All us Procks kind of wear our emotions on our sleeve, and the race car performance definitely dictates our attitude,” Prick admitted. Thursday night was a much more fun night; got to have a happy beer at the end of the night instead of a sad one. And there’s a big difference there.”
Prock started to second-guess his ability to drive a Funny Car after the first day.
“I asked my dad, I’m like, ‘Am I doing anything wrong that’s messing up?” Prock recalled. “No, it’s not you. It’s not you.”
“So obviously, that makes me feel good, but with us struggling, I got to learn a lot of different scenarios on how to drive this race car because when they go just up and down the racetrack, you don’t get in those race day scenarios where you really got to drive the thing to get it down the racetrack, got to experience holes out at the hit tire, shake tire, smoke, headaches, you name it. Had two holes out on the left side at once, kept it in the groove. Those different scenarios are going to come in handy in the long run and on race day.”
But the biggest lesson Prock learned was that it’s not how one starts but how one finishes that counts. This lesson was driven home when Prock drove his way to the No. 1 qualifying spot in Friday’s PRO Superstar Shootout.
“We started out a little rough, but it didn’t take us long to realize we have a rocket ship here,” Prock said.
THE SPEED MERCHANT - When Bob Tasca ran 339.87 miles per hour, which at the time was the fastest speed ever for a piston-driven car, there was no doubt a 340 was coming the next day. Then came the 341.68, validating Tasca's critical decision at the beginning of 2023.
The naysayers said Todd Okuhara and Aaron Brooks couldn't do the job for Tasca.
As Tasca sees it, three wins in four final rounds, seven No. 1 qualifiers, and now a 341 speed record should prevent the issue from coming up again beyond this article.
"I'm not going to talk about it," Tasca said. "Talked about it all last year, how I got kind of screwed when my whole team left me. We brought these guys together last year, and I just felt that the chemistry would be right. We proved all the dollars wrong. This year's a very different year. This year, the expectations are high. And this team's up for the challenge. Everyone came back. We saw what this race car did, and we'd love to win this opener."
Last year at the Texas NHRA Fall Nationals in Dallas, Tex., Tasca ran a career-best 338.57 miles per hour, so his 339.87 should come as no surprise.
"Robert [Hight] ran the exact same elapsed time to the tenth with the laid-back headers back in '17," Tasca said. "To be able to do it with the stand-up headers with a completely different ignition package just shows the dedication and hard work this team has put in.
"This Mustang, man, I tell you it's making a lot of power, but hey, they pulled "t back. They told me they were going to pull it back. I said, 'How much are you going to pull it back?"
"They said, "Just go and take the car down the race track. Don't worry about "how much we pull it back."
The previous fastest run since the laid-back era ended came at Maple Grove Raceway in 2019 when Ron Capps ran a 339.28 speed coupled with a 3.837 elapsed time. Capps had a 285 speed to the eighth mile.
It's not an official NHRA record, but when the topic of 340 miles per hour comes up, Tasca can lay claim to being the first to surpass the mark.
"We wanted to make sure we could get it, and the boys got it," Tasca said. "We set the car up for speed, and the speed gods gave us speed. Amazing run, one for the ages. First ever over 340. Never forget that one."
Tasca's 3.840 elapsed time actually placed him second in qualifying.
And likely Tasca's 341 will become the equivalent of Eddie Hill's 4.99 second run, a historical run made at an NHRA event and discounted by the primary drag racing series.
WHY THE TOP FUEL 339 WASN'T LEGIT - For 30 minutes during the PRO Superstar Shootout testing on Wednesday, the consensus floating around the starting line at Bradenton Motorsports Park was that the 340-mile-per-hour barrier was close to falling. Then reality hit.
Bob Brockmeyer, the founder of the Compulink timing system, has been called many things over his career, but "reality" has likely never been one of them. Thursday morning, Brockmeyer became "reality."
Since Antron Brown's 339 mile-per-hour run and Shawn Langdon's 338 were done in testing - there are no disallowing runs. There is, however, legitimizing them.
Brockmeyer's expert opinion determined the speeds were not legit.
"The splits on top were not legit, and I just double-checked everything this morning," Brockmeyer confirmed. "We'd set all the beam highs, the beam sensitivities, everything up on a tune-up, and they were all right. But we've seen times in the past where everything is right, but you get that because the track got a little bit of a dip here and there on the top end."
Brockmeyer explained the dragsters likely "walked" the beam, which tripped the front tire and not the front wing. He estimated the runs should have been in the 332-mile-per-hour range. The reason the wing didn't trip the beam is there's talk some of the teams have been raising for aerodynamic purposes.
"The fix to that is to raise the beam half-inch, turn the sensitivity down a quarter of a turn, and compensate for whatever the car is actually doing," Brockmeyer explained. "So even though it was 'right,' that's what you have to do."
Langdon did run a 337-mph speed on Wednesday, which Brockmeyer deemed as legitimate.
OFF TO A HOT START - Josh Hart's first run of the season started with a bang, "literally."
The R+L Carrier-sponsored Hart launched in his first run of the season, only to have dragster's fuel pump explode, resulting in a burst of fire and nitromethane sprayed into his cockpit. It was the first fire Hart has ever experienced.
The discoloration of his firesuit told the story.
"That was the first time that my body had ever been exposed to the flame," Hart said. "We had a fuel pump explode on the front of the housing, and it shot fuel into the cockpit and it singed my gloves and burnt up to my knees."
So much for the thought process of rear-engine cars saving a driver from fire."
"I would've thought the same thing until just moments ago," Hart admitted. "I heard the pop. And the safety equipment all worked great. After that, it was just a matter of slowing the car down. And then, what really got you was when you realize that the fire is in the cockpit, and you can't breathe, and you got to get out."
Harft missed the cut for the eight-car field but managed a 3.729 headed into the 2024 in a few weeks in Gainesville, Fla.
Latino, now a co-owner of the KB Titan brand, has managed to marry his business into drag racing. He has been in the emissions industry for now 25 years.
The former Pro Modified driver, who is now trying his hand at NHRA Pro Stock, is working on making drag racing engines more environmentally friendly since he sees a day coming when leaded fuels wind down in drag racing.
Latino's company supplies many of the leading aftermarket exhaust manufacturers with EPA-mandated catalytic converters, which makes those units EPA-compliant without sacrificing performance.
Latino believed that if he could make them efficiently for custom street cars, why not the race car he drives in the NHRA competition?
"I went into Greg Anderson and said, 'Hey Greg, guy, I got an idea. I'm going to put a couple of catalytic converters in one of the Pro Stock engines," Latino said. "And he goes, 'Like hell, you're going to do that. It's going to restrict."
Finally, Anderson reluctantly gave it a try.
"I laughed at first [with the suggestion]," Anderson admitted. "I absolutely laughed and said, 'Well, why would I want to do that? It's like strangling my neck. Why would I want to strangle my neck?"
"And he said, 'I'm telling you it's going to work. It's not a problem. It's not a hindrance. You trust me?"
"We did the [size] calculation based on exhaust flow, based on how much power the "engine makes," Latino said. "The engine's just a big air pump, and air in air out. Based on the flow, we designed a catalytic converter. It was five inches in diameter, nothing big. Cars have six and seven-inch cats."
Anderson, who has seen a lot of things in his career as a racer and engine builder, entered uncharted territory.
"Lo and behold, it lost no power," Anderson admitted. "He was right. I quit. I know nothing."
"We think it's just the next swing into the whole race world that has this bad rap on emissions," Latino said. "There's a lot of talk about the sport; NASCAR went to EFI. They went to E85 fuels. If you look at F1, they've all gone to hybrid/E85 fuel. So the only way we can put converters on a Pro Stock engine and not have them poisoned is to have to run unleaded fuels. Today, all the race fuel is lead."
Currently, NHRA Pro Stock is the only professional car series in the world utilizing leaded fuels. FIA [European] Pro Stock now runs unleaded fuels. Latino has already presented NHRA with a proposal to legalize catalytic converters on Pro Stocker. NHRA must approve them for anyone to run one during their races.
"As soon as the NHRA gives us the thumbs up that we can switch over to unleaded fuels, I think that's going to be the big push on putting catalytic converters on these Pro Stock cars," Latino said.
Latino believes significant strides have been made in technology with unleaded fuels to make the switch less challenging than it used to be. He confirmed his GESi units are already installed on many of the leading aftermarket street exhaust units to make them EPA-compliant.
"[NHRA] was very receptive," Latino said. "I talked to the tech department. I said, 'Hey guys, what do you think about putting catalytic converters on a Pro Stock car so we can go out there and tell the world that every car that's performing that's performing like the cars being marketed to the world are EPA compliant?"
"What message does that give the young generation? Because the biggest fear always is it's not our future; it's our kid's futures, and they're being educated so much about global warming and all the issues with greenhouse gases. Well, here's one way to eliminate that from this car. Today, I wouldn't doubt if 75-percent of the race cars that perform at any NHRA race are EFI.
"They're all changing. Holley came out with a great system. Most sportsman cars have gone to electronic fuel injection. If you can maintain the air-fuel ratio and keep it at 12:9 to 13:1, that converter will live without any issues.
WAX ON, WAX OFF - If John Medlen has heard the scenario once, he's heard it a million times. It's like the Karate Kid meets nitromethane tuning, and for the record, Medlen has zero problem being the sensei to a young tuner that he expects to be one of the leading tuners of the future.
Jonnie Lindberg was named as the crew chief for Paul Lee Racing at the end of 2023 and would be mentored by the championship-winning Medlen. Tuesday was his first day on the job, out in the field during testing at Bradenton Motorsports Park.
"I think Jonnie's going to be one of the stars of the show," Medlen proclaimed. "I really believe that."
Lee's McLeod Racing team made several strong runs, finishing in the eight-car field for the PRO Superstar Shootout. Of all his runs, none were more impressive than the 3.88 during the heat of the day on Friday.
By the looks of it, Lindberg is taking to the challenge of learning and executing with no problem at all.
"He's been a racer for so many years and running his own car and so many other people's cars, he knows the level of competition," Medlen said. 'Just if there was any apprehension, it's just that the intimidation of the fuel car. He's a mechanical guy. He gets it."
The Swedish-born Lindberg has plenty of experience with Funny Cars, having won the 2013 FIA Top Methanol championship, and after arriving in the United States in 2014, obliterated the NHRA Top Alcohol Funny Car elapsed time world record, won six national events and two regional races, and a couple of national championships.
Lindberg did a stint as the driver for nitro veteran Jim Head. He even walked away from a two-car crash with John Force.
"He's been around it enough," Medlen said. "Like anybody else, me, everybody included, that's a competitor; your level of competition is within yourself, and that's what drives you to be nervous. But if you've got a level, a reasonable level of understanding with the parts, that calms you a bit."
Though Lindberg could have been intimidated by the prospect of a new job and one of the more seasoned mentors in the business, it wouldn't have been in his nature.
"So far, it's been really good because we kind of think the same," Lindberg said. "It's easy for him to explain something for me and I get it right away, and vice versa. If I try to explain something to him, he gets it pretty quick. I've been working with different people during my career, and it's been hard to try to explain something, but this is a pretty good match, I think."
Medlen said the first thing he established with Lindberg is they are on the same level, even though he is the mentor.
"First thing," Medlen confirmed. "We established that we're on the same wavelength naturally, and when you're on the same frequency naturally, then you can discuss everything just like friends, not as somebody trying to dictate this or that or the other. What we've got, it's great. We got no foreseen or even unforeseen differences."
The kind of working relationship was the only reason Medlen came out of his retirement.
"It's kind of funny. I had a friend text me at the beginning of this year, and he asked, 'Who are you going to retire with this year?" Medlen said. "My full intent was when I officially retired that I would never come back. That was my full 100% intent. But Paul Lee called and I said, 'No, I'm not interested. I just really don't want to do this anymore."
"He said' 'Well, man, I need some help."
"That pulled on a string. You think, okay, so when you come back out here and your goal is to help somebody, that's okay. I don't want to sit in the captain's chair. I don't want to do any of that. But to help is fun for me. And especially when, in the case of Jason [Bunker] last year, we went along through the year, and the car improved, and he moved on to Cruz, but he'll take 100% of what we learned together with him. And that makes me feel good that you help another guy in the sport, hopefully, and probably earn a living in the sport. And regardless, at the end of the day, we still got to pay the bills. So those guys got to eat.
And it's working for Lee, as on his first full pass to the finish line, he recorded a 3.87. No doubt, the boss likes what he sees now.
"Jonnie is smart, and he's a sponge," Lee said. "And he is learning from one of the legends of the sport, so it's a perfect match for him. He gets to learn from one of the best, and that's what he wants to do. And the guy's super smart, and he picks up everything quickly. So to run a 387 on the full run we tried to make is pretty impressive. He's making those tire change or the tire pressure and the primary calls. He's a natural."
READY TO WIN NOW - The more things change in the sport of drag racing, the more they have remained the same for star Top Fuel driver Justin Ashley.
Ashley has become a legitimate contender for an NHRA Top Fuel championship, and that’s his goal in 2024 as he returns to the same team with all pieces intact.
“As you know, in the sport, it’s so critical to have the same personnel and to be able to represent a company like SCAG Power Equipment is really an honor,” Ashley said. “They have so many dealers all across the nation, and owners, and users, and just to be a representative for that company means so much, not only to me but our entire team. So, to be able to continue our relationship with guys like (his tuners) Mike Green and Tommy DeLago and (team owner) Dustin Davis, but now extend our family into the Metalcraft of Mayville family, it really means the world to us.”
Ashley’s 3.713-second elapsed time at 326.87 placed him No. 4 on the qualifying ladder for Saturday’s race. Unfortunately for him, he crossed paths with eventual winner Doug Kalitta.
Ironically, when Ashley entered the Top Fuel realm, he beat Kalitta for his first-round win. But, a lot has changed since then. A lot has changed since last season for the former Rookie of the Year.
Ashley admitted there’s been a lot of moving parts to get his team to this point – but he would not have it any other way.
“I love it. This is the kind of change that we love, and I think sometimes you got to go through change to reach a point of stability,” he said. “I feel like we've gone through that change and now we're going to have that stability and the resources and the consistency that we all want for years to come.”
A year ago, Ashley had an amazing NHRA regular season – winning six races and entering the six-race Countdown to the Championship in the No. 1 spot. Unfortunately, he finished fourth in the points standings, which is something he wants to change in 2024.
THE ROAD AHEAD FOR LEAH - With Leah Pruett, there are really two ways to look at the testing in Bradenton, Fla., culminating in the PRO Superstar Shootout. It's either bitter or sweet, but no bittersweet.
Pruett is driving her Top Fuel dragster for the last time this season before taking a hiatus to start a family with her husband and substitute driver, Tony Stewart.
"Right now, it's "really just sweet," Pruett said. "I think that's because I've thought about it for a long time and we've properly prepared for the transition and I've had time to evaluate my motions through it."
The bitter part, and she's not bitter about it by any means, but believes NHRA should consider an amendment to their driver substitution policies to accommodate their growing female participation in terms of pregnancy. In the past, the largely male contingent of drivers never faced this dilemma for obvious reasons.
"I really did hope that NHRA would've taken this opportunity to create a pregnancy protocol," Pruett suggested. "We are the leading motorsports globally when it comes to dominant women in pretty much every category. So I'm not the only one going through this decision. So I hope that what I'm doing will set a new standard and give NHRA the opportunity to be a front-runner in this."
A recent driver replacement protocol issued to drivers didn't address the issue, and this disappoints Pruett. She could start the season, but if she becomes pregnant, the season would be for naught.
And also standing in the way could be her participation in the Pep Boys Allstar Callout, and based on the NHRA's interpretation of their entry/withdrawal memo, she would have to enter the NHRA Gatornationals and race since the event is on Saturday.
Austin Prock is running Funny Car this season, and since NHRA rules prohibit him from running professional categories, his spot was handed to first alternate Shawn Langdon.
As far as Pruett sees it, the issues will be what the issues will be. At Bradenton, she was committed to giving her team the best test driver she could be, which was good enough to qualify for the PRO Superstar Shootout. She ran in the 3.60s during testing.
"It's a system," Pruett said. "We made some crew changes, moving people around so that their skill level upgrades and gets varied. And just like last season, this is why I get excited. Last preseason, we had the long game in mind. We knew the innovation that we were trying to execute, and in the beginning, it didn't look promising. It got a little bit more promising.
"We were able to implement it by Charlotte, and then we committed to it so that we felt like we had a confident program by the Countdown, and our Countdown performance really showed, and that's what makes me excited about this."
Pruett is prepared to put her rookie Top Fuel substitute in the best chance to win a world championship since Gary Scelzi pulled off the feat in 1997.
"What we're doing right now is for the long game when Tony is in the car and in a championship hunt, that will be in that same fighting position.," Pruett explained. "I don't know. I think I might even get more nervous outside the car watching Tony in it, but I'm going to miss going fast. But hopefully we're able to start a family at some point and then I'll be able to come back. That's the plan."
Right now, Pruett knows she is doing the right thing.
"I always heard about females and their biological clocks and things like that," Pruett said. "I don't feel like I have that, this isn't particularly, yes, I do want a family, but making this move now because I'm 35, I don't want to, as women get older, the more challenges that they have. So just trying to be as proactive about things as possible.
"Sure. Would I like to hold on like a male, be able to race, and have a family? [Those options] just aren't my cards."
TESTING MAKES FOR SUCCESS - Part of the journey to having a successful NHRA season is making quality test runs to get a tune-up right.
Standout nitro Funny Car driver Alexis DeJoria did that and more in Bradenton.
DeJoria spent the week with tuner Del Worsham, making laps in preparation for the 2024 season.
“We had a lot of runs, great track, great prep. So, we’ve made some good passes,” “DeJoria said. “The last couple of ones were really we’ve consistent and showed when we came out with Q1 and ran that .89. So really happy about that.”
DeJoria clocked a 3.893 elapsed time at 330.80 mph in Q1 Thursday, putting her in the No. 7 spot in the eight-car field.
“Del (Worsham, her crew chief) has been doing this for so long. I’m not surprised at all,” said DeJoria about the success she had right out of the hauler. “There had been a couple of changes, and we weren’t sure what we were going to come up against when we were out here. And I think that it’s just proven over the test of time and Del’s expertise in this field and we’re a great team and we’ve got it going on. It’s just a matter of getting it all together and making it happen at the right time.”
A year ago, DeJoria had an up-and-down season, finishing 11th in NHRA’s Funny Car standings, posting a 19-20 elimination-round record. Her highlights came via three runner-up performances in Charlotte, N.C. in the spring, Bristol, Tenn., and Denver.
DeJoria acknowledged her success has been fueled by her strong working relationship with Worsham, a world champion driver in Top Fuel (2011) and Funny Car (2015).
“Ever since I first was watching Del as a fan ... When I first came to the drag races at 16, I was watching Del Worsham and John Force race Funny Cars, and now I have the honor of saying that Del’s my friend and my crew chief and my co-owner, co-team owner and it’s come full circle,” DeJoria said. “So, it’s pretty cool. I got licensed in his own family (Funny) Car and got to have him as a crew chief, as a teammate when he was driving the DHL Funny Car. So yeah, I mean, we’ve come a long way, Del and I. It’s pretty cool to watch the progress I think, between all of us and yeah, we have a really good team. We’ve got a really good thing going on and everybody’s getting along well.”
CLAY GETS ONE BY CLEETUS - On paper, it doesn’t look like a fair race. In reality, it didn’t either.
As the sun sat on Bradenton Motorsports Park, YouTube superstar Cletus McFarland and Clay Millican lined up for a grudge race on Wednesday.
McFarland was in his auction-bought, turbocharged C6 Corvette, and Millican was in his Rick Ware Racing Top Fuel dragster.
Millican spotted McFarland a second and a half and then apparently sped by him with enough force to potentially spin him out. It didn't cause him to lose control but apparently shut McFarland’s engine down.
Millican made the most of the publicity stunt, running his best run of testing, a 3.683, at 330.23 miles per hour, to end Wednesday as the fifth-quickest car on the property. It later proved to the impetus for his Friday night tuneup which propelled him to No. 1 qualifier with a 3.669 at 335.57 miles per hour.
“I tell you what, when you got Cleetus McFarland involved in anything, anything could happen, and we just did it,” Millican said. “We raced his car, Ruby. I set him out there and run him down. I didn’t blow the doors off Ruby, but I actually shut it off. When the Top Fuel came by him, it cut Ruby off. So everybody that knows anything about YouTube, they know that man right there. And he’s a wild man. He’s super talented, super smart. That was fun.”
What happened the loser?
McFarland was on the ground in Millican’s pits, servicing the bottom end of the engine.
“He’s doing bottom end," Millican said with a chuckle. “We got six-foot-six Garrett Mitchell, aka, Cleetus McFarland. We got him doing the bottom end.”
Next time the two pull off this match, McFarland might want to consider an agent on his behalf. Millican spotted him a second-and-a-half, and that was on the honor system.
“That’s what it was,” Millican said with a sneaky smile.
CLUTCH REUNION - The nitro pit area is a community where crew guys will come and go. But more often than not, those working relationships turn into longtime friendships.
That’s precisely what happened with Jim Oberhofer and Nicky Boninfante, who worked together back in the day at Kalitta Motorsports on Scott Kalitta’s Top Fuel dragster back in his championship years. Then, they went their separate ways to pursue other opportunities.
They are back together this year as the Clay Millican Parts Plus Top Fuel dragster tuners.
“We spent a lot of time together back in the ’90s working on Scott [Kalitta’s] car, winning those championships, and then I worked with his brother John, where Jim O ran our team,” Boninfante said. “We’ve all gotten to work together for a really good long time, close to 20 years. I’m really looking forward to getting back into Top Fuel.”
There are some folks with a natural chemistry, and Boninfante said it isn’t hard to see the synergy between him and Oberhofer.
“There’s only a few guys in the sport that I really enjoy working with, and he’s one of them,” Boninfante said. “Obviously, working with Del Worsham, one of my best friends and someone I’ve enjoyed working with for the last five years, too.
“I was looking to get back with a dragster and then also get a little closer to home so I could be with my family a little bit more. I’m really looking forward to sharing that chemistry again.”
Boninfante will be co-crew chief, and the chance to work with Millican is something he’s excited about. He tuned for Bruce Litton and raced against Millican in the IHRA, where Millican is a multi-time IHRA champion.
“He always gave us a good whipping back then,” Boninfante said. “I’m looking forward to being able to race with him and work for Rick Ware.”
While Boninfante will work with Oberhofer on the tuning decisions, it’s the clutch can that will be his expertise. The name Boninfante has long been synonymous with high-performance clutches. Though he’s no longer working in the family’s Boninfante Friction business, he’s very still up to snuff on clutches.
“I help Jim with the tuning decisions based on the racetrack and the weather and then also with the type of clutch configuration that we’re running,” Boninfante said. “We’ve done a little bit of work on that to try to pick the car up in the areas that Jimo felt like he needed to grab a little bit of ET and speed.
“We run a six-disc like most guys do. Back in the Kalitta days, we had a six-disc too. So over here, we’re just running a setup that Jim O’s worked really hard at the last few years we feel like our car will be very competitive this season.”
REUNITED - It’s not like they don’t have history together.
Turn the clocks back to 2013, and that was when the former sportsman standout turned Top Fuel champion Shawn Langdon won a championship back in 2013 while on the Alan Johnson-led Al Anabi team with Brian Husen.
The two will be reunited in 2024, and if the early results of testing are a harbinger of things to come, the Kalitta Motorsports fielded team stands poised for a good season.
“The car’s been a dream to drive,” Langdon said. “Brian and the boys, they’ve put in a lot of hours in the offseason, changing a lot of things. And fortunately, the results are showing. The car’s been on a string for the last couple of days. I mean, we have not made a bad run. They came out swinging. We’ve been laying down some really good laps, big speeds, low ETs, parts been looking great. Everything’s kind of getting in sync, and it’s good.
“I’m happy for the guys and especially for Brian.
“This is his opportunity to spread his wings a little bit, and I’m just honored to be his driver. And I worked with Brian for a lot of years on the Al-Anabi car, and so it’s a neat opportunity for him, and I’m glad to be able to be his driver.”
From the moment Langdon heard he was going to be reunited with Husen, he knew this association would lead to one place.
“Winner circle,” Langdon responded. “That’s our mentality. I think that’s why even back in the Al-Anabi days, Brian and I, after the Al-Anabi stuff went away, still remained good friends, and we still communicated a lot throughout the years. With him and I going to different teams, I’ve always had a lot of respect for Brian. So when the opportunity presented itself to me, it was a no-brainer.
“I couldn’t ask for a better guy to lead the way on the car that I’m on. Brian’s just as hard of a worker as you’re going to find, and part of having a successful team is surrounding yourself with great people. And Brian has a really good way of bringing the best out in everybody.”
WELCOME TO THE SHOW - This is certainly unchartered territory for Dave Richards.
After racing part-time for 10 years, Dave Richards and Paul Richards Racing will be running the full 2024 NHRA Mission Foods Drag Racing Series season for the first time in the Versatran/BlueBird nitro Funny Car.
His first stop with a full-time operation is competing at the inaugural $1.3 million PRO Superstar Shootout at Bradenton (Fla.) Motorsports Park, which began Thursday and concludes Saturday night.
“Being able to test is definitely new for us. I mean, if we make a test run or two throughout a whole year, that's usually a plus,” Dave Richards said. “But to be able to come out here and make as many runs as we can make in the timeframe of a couple days is definitely helping out. Typically, our first test run was Q1 at any national event.”
Dave Richards acknowledged his team was on a run count for a decade because of financial backing or lack thereof.
“It's all what the budget lets you do. So luckily, we're out here and we've got a good budget to go race all year, and we're going to keep trying to get better every run,” he said. “And here, it's basically still a test for us here, even though we're at the Shootout because this is a new car from when we crashed last year. So, we're still working out the bugs and we're still moving things around for me to get a little more comfortable in the car.”
Versatran, a division of Metalcraft of Mayville, the parent company of Scag Power Equipment, joined Richards and his brother, Paul, during the 2023 NHRA Drag Racing Series season. The team competed in 11 races, qualified in the top 16 eight times, and made it to the quarterfinals twice, ultimately finishing the season No. 16 in the Funny Car standings. In 2024, Versatran will be joined by Metalcraft of Mayville’s newly acquired company, BlueBird, the industry’s most reliable turf care power equipment company.
“I'm still a ball of nerves. It's getting better,” Paul said. “I'm glad I got a few short runs out of the way. But you want it like instant results, which it's hard to get with all this stuff, but I feel like we're making progress every time we put the car together, and I'm hoping today with three runs that we can do it in a short amount of time that we'll be smiling at the end of the day.”
Richards has entered 52 career NHRA national events behind the wheel of a nitro Funny Car. His best two performances came last season when he won two rounds. He upset reigning world champion Matt Hagan in Brainerd, Minn., and derailed three-time world champ Ron Capps in the fall race in Charlotte, N.C.
This season he is part of the new three-car SCAG Racing team with Funny Car driver Daniel Wilkerson and Top Fuel pilot Justin Ashley. The 2024 NHRA Mission Foods Drag Racing Series season kicks off at the Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals at Gainesville (Fla.) Raceway, March 8-10.